A theme has begun to emerge from the first four episodes of ABC’s reality television show “Homeland Security USA.” Occasionally the narrative breaks from its usual “Cops”-style, heart-pounding segments of border agents drawing their weapons on a suspect or airport security seizing smuggled narcotics to focus briefly on the warm personal story of a homeland security employee.

The profiles at times are genuinely touching. In episode two, a Customs and Border Protection officer born in the United States but of East Indian ancestry tells how he’s proud to fight the war on stereotypes each day by wearing a turban and beard to work, a dress-code exception he was allowed after filing a religious waver as a Sikh. When co-workers jokingly ask how they, too, can be permitted to wear a beard, he laughs and says all they have to do is “find the faith.”

In another scene, a CBP inspector describes how he immigrated to the United States from a country so embattled with strife—the former Yugoslavia—that it literally didn’t exist on the map by the time he arrived.

“He’s simply returning the favor,” the narrator says of Officer Dejan Mladenovic’s decision to pursue a job at the Department of Homeland Security. “Fifteen years ago the United States kept him safe, offering him asylum from his wore-torn Communist homeland.”

Mladenovic gets to extend the same opportunity to a woman from Cuba while camera teams are present. She approaches Washington state’s border from Canada, arriving at his station and telling the officers she was politically persecuted by the island country’s regime. America so loathes Fidel Castro’s leadership that Cuban nationals receive special treatment when trying to make their way here, and in just five hours, she’s permitted entry into the United States where a group of relatives are waiting.

“Welcome to America,” Mladenovic tells her almost tearfully before seeing the woman off.

But like so many other truths about the Department of Homeland Security that the show has neglected to mention so far, her case is a rarity. The process for becoming a United States citizen is typically much longer and more tedious for thousands of other people seeking residency here, and the system in place for processing their applications is in many ways tragically broken.

The Government Accountability Office in December 2008 released a report showing that many applicants wait years to learn whether they’ll be permitted to stay partly because the FBI is so far behind on just one phase of the rigmarole—conducting background checks to ensure terrorists aren’t being granted permanent residency status.

At its worst, as many as 24,000 people waited more than two years for the checks and an untold number more sat for as long as three years (the latter figure isn’t included in the report). The bureau had a total backlog of 329,000 cases requiring background checks as of May 2007.

Officials counter that those figures since have been substantially reduced to a more appropriate number. That’s apparently due to federal employees, known as adjudicators who process such applications, complaining that no actions could be taken on the cases until the FBI had completed the necessary background checks. Applications nonetheless were so backed up in July of 2007 that officials in Texas had to rent six 10-by-40 foot pods to store them temporarily in a parking lot, each file containing payments to cover application fees and other sensitive personally identifiable information that belonged in a secure location.

The GAO report also described the FBI’s background checks themselves as “often vague or not useful for adjudicators to determine whether or not an individual was eligible.” Despite major investments in antiterrorism technology after 9/11, the system used for matching names against FBI data is “outdated and potentially ineffective, increasing the risks that submitted names [are] not accurately searched,” according to the report.

Adjudicators have access to their own sources of information for confirming what appears on an immigrant’s application, but it’s entirely up to them whether they decide to verify it, and as a result, the system is highly vulnerable to fraud. The processors don’t even have to check the Department of Homeland Security’s own internal database of past applicants to see if someone’s been married multiple times and filed a petition after each one to make their new hubby a resident.

Agents arrested a Miami woman in December of 2007 charging her with nine counts of bigamy, while her boyfriend was accused a month later of marrying four women for profit so they could obtain lawful status.

Cheaters, then, make it exceedingly difficult for others with legitimate refugee or asylum claims to become American citizens after enduring torture or endless civil war elsewhere in the world. According to one GAO estimate, a stunning 33 percent of so-called “religious workers” seeking residency submitted bogus information to support claims about what they intended to do in the United States. In some cases, a church they said invited them here didn’t exist at all and they weren’t actually priests or ministers. Innumerable such cases were rubber-stamped by adjudicators anyway.

The process for becoming an American citizen can be expedited—but it costs money. The same GAO report describes corruption scandals that have rocked Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency within the Department of Homeland Security in charge of processing residency applications.

During the summer of 2006, for example, an adjudicator was accused of conspiring with a private business that prepared applications for clients based on fraudulent marriages and other dubious documentation. In another case, an agency supervisor pled guilty to accepting up to $600,000 in bribes from private brokers who paid for him to fabricate immigration papers. The brokers involved in the scheme earned more than $2.5 million, according to the report, a figure that compounds the immigration issue by showing how much in savings some people can be forced to give up if they want to become “legalized.”

One might think the legalization process would be easier for those who are victims of a crime and agree to testify on behalf of police and prosecutors. Not so, said the Los Angeles Times in a Jan. 26 story. More than 13,000 people have applied for special visas created in 2000 by Congress that would grant them temporary legal status if they came forward and helped put perpetrators behind bars.

But the program has stalled for eight years, and despite the volume of applicants, only a few dozen of the visas have actually been distributed so far. The first so-called “U-visa” wasn’t issued until last summer.

One young woman who applied for the visa was savagely attacked by her deranged boyfriend who allegedly chased her from their Los Angeles apartment, threw her into a door, kicked her and then stabbed her. She attempted a second escape but he caught her again and stabbed the woman repeatedly, according to the story. A detective in the case signed her visa application after she identified the attacker, but more than a year later she’s still waiting.

Another man agreed to testify against two assailants who sliced, choked and burned him with a hot iron. With the victim’s help, the pair was eventually convicted of carjacking, robbery and kidnapping. But a year later, the victim hasn’t heard from the government about his U-visa. Judging by the number of applications still pending, it will probably be a while.

*Border corruption update*
In recent installments of “The Outtakes,” CIR has reported on several instances of corruption at the Department of Homeland Security that undermine the federal government’s moral resolve in the War on Terror but aren’t expected to appear in the “script” of ABC’s flattering reality show on the agency. New incidents continue to surface.

Federal prosecutors announced Jan. 28 that a Customs and Border Protection officer and his wife allegedly agreed to receive bribery payments totaling $33,000 in exchange for allowing 600,000 ecstasy pills into the United States through the Yuma Port of Entry in Arizona. The pills were fake, according to the federal government, and used to bust the duo as part of a sting operation coordinated by the FBI, the Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security and the internal affairs unit of CBP.

In August of 2008, according to court records in the case, an informant tipped officials of potential misconduct involving the husband, 41-year-old Henry Gauani, aka “Mr. Wong,” who had allegedly allowed undocumented Chinese immigrants to pass illegally through his inspection lane.

The FBI outfitted the informant with a wire this past November and sent the person to the couple’s home, according to a complaint drafted by a special agent with the Inspector General’s Office. The three allegedly discussed the deal during multiple meetings, and at one point, Mr. Wong even proposed driving to Mexico and retrieving the pills himself to eliminate the need for costly go-betweens, meaning he would be paid the extra cash.

In an unrelated case that surfaced Jan. 28, federal authorities charged a CBP officer named Sergio Lopez Hernandez with drug possession, importation and allowing unauthorized immigrants into the United States, according to the Brownsville Herald and court records.

Investigators purportedly set up surveillance and witnessed Lopez Hernandez allowing four cars through his inspection lane in Texas that were identified as being used for smuggling undocumented immigrants. One of the cars, according to reports, contained 15 kilos of cocaine. The officer allegedly allowed other illegal immigrants through his lane during separate undercover operations conducted by federal officials.

The probe began after the feds were notified that Lopez Hernandez had previously allowed both immigrants, for which he allegedly received $500 each, and narcotics to be smuggled into the United States. An affidavit from an Immigration and Customs Enforcement internal affairs investigator says that $85,000 was found in a safe during a raid of Lopez Hernandez’s Brownsville residence. He’s currently being held without bail.

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G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.