WASHINGTON — The FBI lost track of 62 foreign nationals the agency sponsored in the United States to help with investigations, and failed to immediately report at least two dozen of these "absconsions" to immigration authorities, a new report from the Justice Department's inspector general's office found.
The office released a report on Wednesday auditing the Justice Department's use of programs that allow law enforcement agencies to sponsor foreign nationals to stay in the United States to serve as witnesses, confidential informants, or other types of cooperators. Some of these individuals otherwise wouldn't be eligible to come to the United States because of their "association with criminal enterprises," the report noted.
"We are concerned that the monitoring policies and practices currently executed by the DOJ components that sponsor foreign nationals do not adequately mitigate the risks associated with bringing individuals into the United States who may have criminal backgrounds or involvement in disreputable activities, or who may be associated with such individuals," the inspector general's office wrote.
As for the 62 people that the FBI lost track of, the report included no details about who the foreign nationals are, when they "absconded," and where they are now. The US Department of Homeland Security defines the term as anyone who violates their sponsorship agreement to avoid being removed from the United States.
That number includes both "benign" and "deliberate" absconsions — the former being people who may have just moved and failed to notify their sponsoring agent, the latter being people who are purposefully evading law enforcement in order to stay in the United States, according to a footnote. The report doesn't say how many cases fell into each category though.
According to the report, there were 22 cases of people who absconded and weren't reported to DHS until the department did a review in 2018; it wasn't clear when the FBI lost track of their location. Once a sponsored foreign national goes missing, immigration authorities generally take over responsibility for finding them, according to the report. The inspector general's office also found two cases that weren't reported to FBI headquarters for months, which led to a delay in notifying immigration authorities.
"Failing to report instances of absconsion inhibits DHS’s ability to execute its responsibilities to locate and handle absconders," the inspector general's office wrote. "This is especially problematic for law enforcement-sponsored foreign nationals because these individuals often have criminal histories or are involved with criminal organizations. Therefore, there are risks associated with these individuals remaining in the United States unsupervised and the public can be at risk."
Between 2015 and 2017, there were more than 5,000 sponsorships approved across the Justice Department through these programs (that number might count certain individuals more than once if they were sponsored through different programs over time).
The report identified lapses in oversight of these sponsored foreign nationals by five agencies and offices that fall under the Justice Department, including the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration, which accounted for the bulk of sponsorships.
DHS adopted a more formal process for coordinating with the Justice Department in 2017, according to the report.
A spokesperson for the FBI did not return a request for comment on Wednesday afternoon. In a letter attached to the report, the FBI wrote that it agreed with the inspector general's recommendation to take steps to make sure it was sharing information and cooperating with Homeland Security. In 2018, the FBI entered into an agreement with DHS to have a designated special agent assigned to work with immigration authorities on dealing with sponsorship issues, including locating absconders. As of March 2019, the FBI had three people working on a compliance team, according to the FBI’s response letter.
The DEA told the inspector general's office that it wasn't aware of any people the agency was sponsoring who had absconded. But according to the report, investigators found one case where the DEA notified immigration authorities that they couldn't find someone. When asked about that case, the DEA told the inspector general's office that the agent last made contact with the person in July 2017, but it wasn't reported to DHS until November of that year.
The report also found that there were problems with agencies renewing sponsorships before they expired, which put the foreign nationals at risk of deportation.