The security of the nation's visa programs took a grilling from the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on March 15, with scrutiny repeatedly falling on its efficiency and enforcement efforts.
Senators took aim at a number of issues within the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, from combating terrorism through visa scrutiny to law enforcement efforts, but here's a look at the three events that stood out the most.
The San Bernardino terrorism investigation
One of the more dramatic moments of the hearing came when Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., questioned USCIS director León Rodríguez and U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement director Sarah Saldaña why I Homeland Security Investigations agents were prevented from taking a terror suspect into custody by immigration officials the day after the attacks.
Enrique Marquez — the neighbor of suspects Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik and who purchased the weapons used in the attack — had an immigration hearing on Dec. 3, 2015 at an USCIS office, when an HSI team was alerted that he was a suspect and went to apprehend him. But the HSI team was prevented from entering the office by USCIS officials. Marquez left the appointment and was later arrested.
Johnson said he was concerned about the agency communication breakdowns that prevented the HSI team from arresting Marquez.
"We had a team armed up and potentially dealing with a terrorist. The agent in charge of USCIS wouldn't allow HSI into the building," he said. "That's not indicating a great deal of cooperation between two different agencies under DHS, whose supposed top concern is the security of this nation."
Rodríguez said the situation had developed so quickly that a USCIS official sought guidance from higher-up, which led to the delay.
"Do we need to look at our protocols to make sure those misunderstandings don't occur? That may well be something we need to do," he said.
The paper visa chase
DHS inspector general John Roth also testified about the agency's often hamstrung efforts to develop an automated visa application process.
Roth said that despite an 11-year effort to institute the Electronic Immigration System, USCIS said it would take three more years and another $1 billion to get the system up and running.
The IG also found that known human traffickers used U.S. visas to bring in victims legally as a result of poor communication between agencies.
Rodríguez said the failure to develop the ELIS system was the result of a "number of serious and quite protracted false starts" and the issues had been resolved. The director said he expects 30 percent of USCIS business on ELIS.
The death of Sarah Root
A more pointed moment in the hearing came when Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., questioned Saldaña about a case involving 21-year-old Sarah Root. Root was killed in a Jan. 31 drunk driving accident by immigrant Eswin Mejia.
Sasse said local law enforcement asked ICE agents to detain Mejia over his immigration status, but the agents refused, saying request did not meet enforcement priorities. Mejia later bonded out and has since disappeared, leaving the senator to question Saldaña about why ICE failed to apprehend him.
"Quite frankly sir, it's very easy to look back and say that person's judgment was incorrect, and I have some concerns about that," Saldaña said. "As I said earlier, every situation we have that results from something as horrific as this, we always try to learn from it."