Former DHS contractor nabbed in immigrant form forgery plot

Damian Dovarganes/AP

Twice in roughly a year, USCIS allegedly falls prey to an inside job.

A former U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services contract employee has been charged with selling blank official forms to a crime ring that procured driver’s licenses and visas for illegal immigrants. Martin Trejo of Rialto, Calif., who worked as a “material document handler,” sometimes received text messages from accomplices in secret code, according to an 89-page criminal complaint.

The apparent conspiracy involving USCIS, an agency prone to inside threats, marks the second time in about a year an agency contractor has been implicated in a document doctoring plot.

Trejo, 45, worked at USCIS’ Western Forms Center in Montclair, Calif. -- the nation’s largest warehouse storage facility for immigration forms -- according to court documents, which did not name the contractor that employed the suspect.

Justice Department officials announced on June 27 the arrests of Trejo and many of the 21 other individuals allegedly involved in the multistate ploy to purloin legal documents for illegal immigrants and other unauthorized individuals.  

“By gaining access to protected, blank government immigration forms, the subjects in this case were able to utilize sophisticated computer software to create false identity documents and subsequently move to receive legitimate driver’s licenses,” FBI Special Agent in Charge Michael B. Ward said in a statement. “In doing so, they were able to circumvent established safeguards and proper vetting put into place post 9/11.”

According to the complaint filed on June 20, a go-between in February communicated an order to Trejo by texting his cellphone with the message: “Marty can u call me please I need 200 of the A asap” -- a presumed reference to the purchase of about 200 I-797A forms. States rely on these legal documents to verify a driver’s license applicant’s lawful presence in the United States.

Trejo’s job responsibilities as a document handler included shipping, receiving, storing and inventorying USCIS forms, according to court documents.

He has been charged with conspiracy to steal government property and to transport and receive stolen property in interstate commerce, Justice officials said. Trejo faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

New Jersey U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman praised USCIS New Jersey District Director John E. Thompson, among other federal officials, for his work in the investigation of the case.  

The Trejo matter is one of many alleged immigration fraud schemes perpetrated by internal employees and contract personnel at USCIS, a unit of the Homeland Security Department.

In late May 2011, Justice announced a five-and-a-half year jail sentence for a former USCIS records custodian, contracted by Dell, for tampering with computer files to help illegal aliens obtain passports. According to federal district court papers, Richard Abapo Quidilla, 39, of Pico Rivera, Calif., deleted the personal data of naturalized citizens in a secure database and substituted the corresponding information of illegal immigrants.

A 2008 federal investigation into hacking at a Texas USCIS application processing center, also raised questions about the agency's ability to restrict employee and contractor access to critical government networks.

During a year-long probe, the DHS inspector general found that skilled staffers knowingly created vulnerabilities, although their motives are not entirely clear based on internal documents obtained by Nextgov. The IG investigation confirmed major security breaches but was not able to attribute them to specific individuals, personnel involved with the case said during interviews. The Justice Department decided not to prosecute the subjects of the investigation, some of whom were employed by General Dynamics under contract, for reasons that were redacted in a copy of the report reviewed by Nextgov.

A long-delayed multibillion-dollar project to computerize immigration casework is expected to improve fraud detection. But IG officials reported in January 2011 that the program, called Transformation, was missing controls to prevent internal hacking.

Frank Deffer, assistant IG for information technology audits, wrote that based on a "review of the requirements for fraud detection and national-security issues, it appears there are no requirements to address insider threats" to Transformation. 

In May, the project’s website ELIS, or Electronic Immigration System, launched with one online application, Form I-539, for certain visa holders seeking to extend or change the status of their stays.

On Monday afternoon, USCIS spokesman Christopher Bentley said, “USCIS holds its employees and contractors to the highest standards of integrity and professionalism and takes seriously allegations of misconduct. The overwhelming majority of employees and contractors that make up USCIS’s 18,000-person workforce conduct their professional duties with integrity and a strong commitment to public service."