Updated 8:51 p.m., 12/12/2013
By Evan Perez
The Homeland Security Department has investigated whether Iranian operatives exploited a controversial U.S. visa program for immigrant investors, according to a DHS memo revealed on Thursday.
The EB-5 program has existed since 1990 but has exploded in popularity in recent years. It allows foreigners to obtain residency status, or a green card, for a $1 million investment in the United States.
The FBI and other agencies have raised security concerns about the program. Some critics say the Chinese government and other foreign agents could use the program for espionage and other purposes.
Sen. Charles Grassley, in a letter to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, is asking for more information about an internal Homeland Security Investigations memo that suggests the agency has been concerned about potential abuse of the program by Iranian operatives.
The Iowa Republican and others have pressed for information on the visa program while the Senate weighs the nomination of Alejandro Mayorkas, who heads the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, to become the No. 2 official at the Homeland Security Department.
Over Republican objections, Democrats pushed Mayorkas's nomination through the committee process and it is now before the full Senate.
The DHS Inspector General is investigating the program and allegations that Mayorkas intervened in particular applications.
In his letter, Grassley asked for more information about the outcome of the 2010 homeland security probe.
The memo makes reference to "concerns that this particular visa program (EB-5) may be abused by Iranian operatives to infiltrate the United States."
The Homeland Security Investigations unit initiated a probe after it found ties between an EB-5 program applicant and the Iranian military unit that the United States accuses of terrorist activity around the world.
Two operatives affiliated with the Iranian military allegedly "facilitate terrorism and are involved in an illegal procurement network that exports items to Iran for use by 'secret' Iranian government agencies," the memo cited by Grassley said.
Citing the HSI memo, Grassley said one of the operatives had ties to an affiliate of the Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Peter Boogaard, a Homeland Security spokesman, said that "USCIS had undertaken unprecedented steps" in the past four years to dramatically increase security protocols and fraud detection.
"In fact, based on these new protocols put in place by current USCIS leadership, in 2011, USCIS identified potential concerns about this regional center, which were referred to key law enforcement partners," he said.
"As a result, all cases from the regional center were put on hold. A thorough investigation by our law enforcement partners found no evidence to suggest that the regional center was being used for nefarious purposes and following the completion of that investigation the request to hold all cases was formally lifted." he added.
Boogaard said USCIS ensures applicants go through background checks before making decisions on visa programs.
A DHS official added that the visa program participant, called a regional center, cited in the Grassley letter was approved prior to the tenure of the current USCIS leadership.
The official said that ICE and USCIS briefed members of Congress, including Grassley's office, on the aggressive steps already taken to address longstanding fraud and national security concerns in the EB-5 program.
Congress re-authorized the EB-5 program as recently as last year.
The Senate has approved changes to address security concerns in the EB-5 program as part of the immigration reform bill that awaits House action.
Democrats have cried foul at the Mayorkasrevelations because it briefly became part of the recent Virginia gubernatorial campaign, and because they say they appear designed to derail Mayorkas's nomination.
One EB-5 investment vehicle associated with Virginia Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe became the center of controversy amid allegations - denied by Mayorkas - that he improperly intervened to help McAuliffe.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, chastised the Homeland Security Inspector General earlier this year for confirming an investigation of the Mayorkas matter to Grassley just before the official's nomination hearing and amid the gubernatorial election.
Leahy sent a letter to Charles Edwards, Deputy Homeland Security Inspector General, to express concern in November.
The letter obtained by CNN said the confirmation to Grassley called into question the impartiality of the Inspector General investigation.
"Its timing and content creates the perception that it was sent in an effort to curry favor with the Judiciary Committee's Ranking Member and to distract from a separate, bipartisan investigation being conducted by the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs of which you are the subject."