EXCLUSIVE: Obama Holdover Influencing Refugee Vetting from Senior DHS Position

Associated Press

Jennifer Higgins, the recently named associate director of the Refugee, Asylum, and International Operations Directorate (RAIO) of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), is another Obama holdover at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) President Trump can remove.

Higgins is a protege of Lori Scialabba, the former acting director of the USCIS. Prior to her sudden resignation in March, Breitbart News identified Scialabba as the number one Obama holdover at DHS President Trump could “fire or remove” because of her open defiance of his first travel ban order and her long record of intervening down the chain to personally assist refugees from Iraq, some of whom were not approved through formal channels.

RAIO is the part of DHS with primary responsibility for vetting refugees who are resettled in the United States under the Refugee Admissions Program authorized under the Refugee Act of 1980.

The improvement of the refugee vetting process was a key theme during President Trump’s campaign. Trump specifically instructed DHS to identify ways to improve the current refugee vetting process in both Executive Order 13769 and Executive Order 13780. Though key elements of both the initial and revised travel bans have been temporarily struck down in several federal courts, the refugee vetting task force has remained in effect.

Though the outgoing Scialabba arranged to have Higgins promoted from her previous official job as deputy associate director at RAIO to associate director there (without open competition for the position), Higgins has not actually done any work for the RAIO job for which she has been paid since early 2016, sources familiar with the operations of DHS tell Breitbart News.

Higgins is, however, working for DHS. She is  currently engaged “on detail” in the department’s headquarters.

Prior to her 2016 “detail” to headquarters, Higgins had a long history at RAIO, where by 2011, she served as deputy chief of the Refugee Affairs Division, one of three within RAIO.

“The Refugee Affairs Division provides resettlement benefits to people who are outside their countries and cannot or are unwilling to return to their homes because they fear serious harm,” according to the USCIS website. The other two divisions at RAIO are the Ayslum Division, which “manages the U.S. affirmative asylum process,” and the International Operations Division, which “with offices around the world, is the face of USCIS abroad.”

During that time, she “was 100 percent supporting the Obama administration in meeting their refugee targets. She browbeat employees to meet the Obama refugee targets,” a source familiar with the operations of DHS tells Breitbart News.

Now, with the new administration, she “has changed her spots and is now portraying herself as an ally of the Trump administration. General Kelly is ill-served having her at Headquarters.”

The unusual employment arrangement that has benefited Higgins (who was paid more than $162,000 in 2015, according to public records) was apparently standard operating procedure at USCIS under Scialabba’s leadership.

“It has become common at USCIS under the Scialabba regime for people to not serve in the positions they are technically employed in,” a source familiar with the operations of DHS tells Breitbart News.

“While technically employed as the deputy associate director for RAIO for several years and, most recently, as the associate director for RAIO (through appointment by Scialabba, without competition), these two positions – originally as the deputy associate director and now as the associate director – have, in fact, been filled by a series of rotating personnel in 60-90 day sprints for the last three years,” the source adds.

The previous associate director, Joseph Langlois, who served until January 2017 was not really engaged in the job and managed it like “an absentee landlord since 2013,” the source adds.

“This ever changing cast of ‘leadership’ has caused significant instability in the program,” the source notes.

Higgins’ ‘detail’ to the Secretary’s office “was supposed to be six months, which started last spring (2016). As far as anyone can tell, she was originally trying to burrow into the Obama apparatus for a permanent position at the Department to advance her personal agenda – cozying up to the previous administration,” the source continues.

“Now it seems she has had a complete theological shift and is now trying to burrow into the permanent apparatus around General Kelly,” the source says.

“Currently, she is ’employed’ as the new permanent associate director, replacing Joe Langlois. If she does return, this will be the first time in a number of years that she has filled the role she is actually being paid for,” the source adds.

On March 31, James McCament was named permanent deputy director of USCIS, apparently about two months after Higgins received the title of associate director of RAIO.

“Until the nomination and Senate confirmation of our next USCIS director, McCament will also serve as acting director of USCIS,” the website says. McCament has been with DHS since its inception. “A founding member of DHS, he served first in the DHS Office of General Counsel from March-September 2003,” the website notes.

He subsequently served as “special advisor to DHS Secretaries Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff,” and from 2006 to 2008 “served as senior counselor to the director of USCIS,” all during the George W. Bush administration.

During the Obama administration, he “served as the chief of the USCIS Office of Legislative Affairs” and subsequently “served in the Office of the USCIS Director as acting chief of staff and acting deputy chief of staff.”

On February 22, Breitbart News identified Joanna Ruppel, at the time the acting associate director, Refugee, Asylum and International Operations, USCIS, DHS, as one of eight Obama holdovers at DHS President Trump could fire or remove:

The Refugee, Asylum and International Operations (RAIO) office at USCIS has been well known as a partisan advocate for promoting asylum to unqualified applicants since at least the 2000s when Lori Scialabba headed the office.

“What USCIS has done through policy, not law, is they have made it impossible to deny asylum to people that gut feelings say is a bad guy,” a source in the Department of Homeland Security tells Breitbart News.

Anyone at USCIS who has experience in that office is tainted by that record, and current Acting Associate Director Joanna Ruppel fits into that category.

In 2015, Ruppel received a Meritorious Executive award from the Office of Personnel Management, which said of Ruppel, chief of International Operations in RAIO at the time, “Ms. Ruppel’s accomplishments are marked by her commitment to serving the world’s most vulnerable populations and building a culture of organizational excellence.”

The DHS website offers conflicting information about who is currently running RAIO.

On one page of the current site, Ruppel, the acting associate director, is listed as the person in the USCIS leadership team who is currently leading RAIO.

On another page of the current site, Higgins, the “named” associate director, is listed as the person in the USCIS leadership team who is currently leading RAIO.

Breitbart News contacted the DHS press office for clarification on who is currently running RAIO but has not yet received a response.


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