LOS ANGELES, Jan. 30 The Immigration and Naturalization Service data processing center in Laguna Niguel, Calif., receives thousands of documents, addressed to the INS, every day, from residents of Arizona, California, Nevada, Hawaii and Guam. But according to a recent federal grand jury indictment approximately 90,000 documents ended up being shredded instead of the being processed.
Dawn Randall, 24, of San Clemente, and Leonel Salazar, 34, of Laguna Niguel, were each charged with conspiracy and five counts of willfully destroying documents that had been filed with the INS. Randall was a contract employee working as a file room manager at the INS facility, and Salazar was another contract employee working as a file room supervisor.
As file room manager, Randall oversaw file room supervisors and clerks who processed the documents received by the INS, as well as correspondence that the agency mailed out. In January 2002, Randall allegedly ordered her file room supervisors to count the number of unprocessed documents in the file room. When the employees reported that the backlog numbered approximately 90,000, Randall allegedly ordered Salazar and other file room supervisors in February 2002 to deliberately begin shredding the unprocessed documents to reduce the backlog. Randall directed that most of the shredding be done on the evening shift to avoid detection by INS employees at the Service Center.
By late March 2002, the backlog of unprocessed documents in the file room was reported to be zero. At that point, Randall allegedly instructed Salazar and others to continue shredding incoming unprocessed documents to keep the backlog at zero.
The types of documents shredded include U.S. and foreign passports, birth and marriage certificates, and INS applications and notices. The shredding allegedly stopped on April 4, 2002 when INS officials discovered two file room clerks shredding unprocessed documents during the evening shift.
The Laguna Niguel center handles paperwork for residents of California, Arizona, Nevada, Hawaii and Guam and is one of four immigration service centers around the country operated by private contractors under I.N.S. supervision.
“There was no I.N.S. policy that required this, nor was she ordered to do it by any superior, as far as we know,” said Greg Staples, the assistant United States attorney handling the case. “The only motive we can think of is just the obvious one of a manager trying to get rid of a nettlesome problem.”
Mr. Staples said one frustrating thing about the case was that most of the evidence had been carted out with the trash and that it was impossible to identify all of the victims.
“It’s like a murder case without a body,” he said. “We will never really know what was destroyed.”
The shredding was discovered in April by an agency supervisor who witnessed what appeared to be unauthorized destruction of documents. The I.N.S. office of internal audit, the Justice Department’s inspector general and the United States attorney’s office for Southern California conducted the investigation that led to this week’s indictments.
Ms. Randall and Mr. Salazar were each charged with conspiracy and five counts of willfully destroying documents filed with the I.N.S. The conspiracy charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison. Each of the other counts can bring three years in prison.
Their subordinates were not charged because they were low-level workers acting on instructions, the government said.
After the shredding was discovered, the immigration service opened a hotline for people who suspected their paperwork had been destroyed. Agency officials helped petitioners reconstruct their files and gave applicants the benefit of the doubt if they could not replace the documents they had submitted, said Lori Haley, a spokeswoman for the I.N.S.’s western regional office.
She said the agency made an effort last year to publicize the problem and was confident that it had rebuilt most of the lost files. She also said that additional staff members had been hired at the center and that oversight had been tightened.
Randall and Salazar appeared for arraignment on February 3 in United States District Court in Santa Ana.
The conspiracy charge in the indictment carries a maximum possible penalty of five years in federal prison. Each count of destruction of the documents carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison.