Cuccinelli Announces USCIS’ FY 2019 Accomplishments and Efforts to Implement President Trump’s Goals

WASHINGTON—U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) today released preliminary fiscal year 2019 agency statistics, accomplishments and efforts to implement President Trump’s agenda. These preliminary statistics highlight important immigration trends and illustrate the work accomplished by USCIS in FY 2019. The agency will publish final, verified FY 2019 statistics later next month.

“FY 2019 has been a historic year for USCIS and we have achieved many of President Trump’s goals to make our immigration system work better for America. As an agency, we have worked hand-in-hand with our fellow DHS components to answer President Trump’s call to address the ongoing crisis at our southern border. In the face of congressional inaction, we’ve taken significant steps to mitigate the loopholes in our asylum system, combat fraudulent claims and strengthen the protections we have in place to preserve humanitarian assistance for those truly in need of it,” said USCIS Acting Director Ken Cuccinelli. “Meanwhile, the men and women of USCIS continue to administer our nation’s lawful immigration system, processing a large number of applications and requests while naturalizing 833,000 new U.S. citizens, an 11-year high.

“In the coming year, we will continue to use every tool available to us to deliver on President Trump’s promises to the American people. We will continue to fulfill his goals to strengthen our nation’s strained immigration system and alleviate the crisis at our border while the agency continues to fairly and efficiently adjudicate the applications of those seeking lawful status in the U.S.”

Crisis Response and Asylum Reform

Absent congressional action to provide targeted fixes to our immigration system, USCIS rushed personnel and resources to our southern border and implemented a number of significant policy changes and reforms designed to help reduce the loopholes in our nation’s asylum system that allowed for crisis levels of abuse and exploitation.

Major Policy Reforms

  • Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP): MPP was established by the Trump Administration in January 2019 to restore a safe and orderly immigration process along the U.S. southern border and decrease the number of aliens attempting to game the immigration system. Under MPP, aliens attempting to enter the U.S. from Mexico without proper documentation may be returned to Mexico to wait outside of the U.S. during their immigration proceedings.

  • Third Country Transit Asylum Rule: In July, DHS and DOJ published a joint interim final rule to enhance the integrity of the asylum process by placing further restrictions or limitations on eligibility for aliens who seek asylum in the United States. Specifically, with limited exceptions, the rule bars aliens, who entered along the southern border, from receiving asylum in the U.S. if they did not apply for asylum in at least one other country they transited through. This rule aims to mitigate the crisis at the border by better identifying and serving legitimate asylum seekers.

Credible Fear

  • In FY 2019, the Asylum Division received more than 105,000 credible fear cases – over 5,000 more than in FY 2018 and a new record high.
  • The top five countries asylum officers processed credible fear claims from: Honduras, Cuba, Guatemala, El Salvador and India.

Asylum Workforce

  • In FY 2019, USCIS executed an ambitious plan to hire 500 staff for the Asylum Division by the end of December 2019 to reach authorized staffing levels. New strategies are in development to more specifically target individuals with relevant experience and skill sets, including those with prior military and law enforcement expertise.
  • During any given week in FY 2019, 60-90 USCIS employees were assigned to detention facilities or Border Patrol stations along the southwest border, including about 40-60 asylum officers.
  • The Asylum Division trained and deployed U.S. Border Patrol agents and USCIS officers from outside the Asylum Division to supplement staffing on the southern border and assist with the Asylum Division’s workload.

Refugee Processing

  • USCIS processed tens of thousands of refugees overseas, work that contributed to meeting the 30,000 refugee admissions ceiling for FY 2019.
  • USCIS conducted a successful pilot program to validate the identity of refugee applicants using UNHCR biometric records.

Crisis Deployments

  • In FY 2019, USCIS sent 400 employee volunteers to assist with the federal government’s overall efforts responding to critical DHS needs.
  • 233 of these volunteers were deployed directly to the nation’s southern border through the DHS Volunteer Force in support of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Others were deployed to offices across the country providing critical legal services and mission support to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Protecting American Workers and Taxpayers

Public Charge

In August, USCIS announced the publication of the Final Rule on Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds, a rule that enforces long-standing law to better ensure that those seeking to come to, or stay in, the United States are self-sufficient. With this new rule, DHS defined public charge to mean an alien who receives one or more designated public benefits for more than 12 months, in the aggregate, within any 36-month period (such that, for instance, receipt of two benefits in one month counts as two months). Under the new regulation, USCIS sought to evaluate applications to better ensure that aliens seeking to come to, or remain in, the United States are able to successfully support themselves through their own capabilities and through the resources of their families, sponsors, and private organizations rather than rely on public benefit programs supported by taxpayers.

On Oct. 11 and Oct. 14, 2019, judges in eight separate cases before U.S. District Courts for the Southern District of New York, Northern District of California, Eastern District of Washington, Northern District of Illinois, and District of Maryland enjoined DHS from implementing and enforcing this final rule and postponed the effective date until a final resolution of the litigation.

EB-5 Reform

In July, USCIS published a final rule that made a number of significant changes to the agency’s EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program. Under the EB-5 program, individuals are eligible to apply for conditional lawful permanent residence in the United States if they make the necessary investment in a new commercial enterprise in the United States and create 10 full-time jobs for qualified U.S. workers. The reforms made to the program this year increase the minimum investment level to account for inflation over the past three decades and substantially restrict the possibility of gerrymandering targeted employment areas that qualify for a reduced investment amount, ensuring that the incentive is reserved for rural and high-unemployment areas most in need.

Securing the Homeland

Vetting and Screening

Consistent with President Trump’s call for enhanced vetting, USCIS plays a key role in safeguarding our nation’s immigration system and making sure that only those who are eligible for a benefit receive it. USCIS is vigorous in its efforts to detect and deter immigration fraud, using a variety of vetting and screening processes to confirm an applicant’s identity and eligibility. The agency also conducts site visits, interviews applicants, and requests evidence for benefits that offer individuals status in the United States.

  • In FY 2019, USCIS expanded certain screening procedures to address President Trump’s Executive Order 13780, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.” This includes additional vetting for naturalization and permanent residence applicants.
  • USCIS personnel completed more than 8,000 site visits as part of the Targeted Site Visit and Verification Program.
  • Referrals to the Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate  from field offices surpassed FY 2018 levels by more than 22%.
  • The primary background screening system for USCIS (known as ATLAS) processed more than 16.5 million screenings, through law enforcement and other federal databases, generating approximately 124,000 automated potential fraud, public safety and national security detections requiring further analysis and manual review by USCIS officers.
  • FDNS continued leveraging open source and publicly available social media information to investigate potential fraud, national security and public safety concerns with approximately 11,420 checks completed in FY 2019.

Large Workload

From the beginning of FY 2019 through August 2019, USCIS adjudicated nearly 7.5 million requests for immigration benefits, which is a 14% increase over the last fiscal year. However, data for September 2019 is not yet available. The verified final totals will be released later next month.

USCIS also naturalized 833,000 new citizens in FY 2019 – an 11-year high in new oaths of citizenship.

USCIS granted lawful permanent residence to 582,000 individuals and processed more than 2.1 million employment authorization applications. The agency also verified more than 40 million new hires through E-Verify.

From the start of FY 2019 through August 2019, the backlogs for Green Cards and naturalizations were reduced by 25% and 20% respectively.

Modernization

Online Filing

The agency’s transition from paper applications to a fully digital experience continues to be an important priority for USCIS. Consequently, USCIS continues to expand our online filing capabilities.

  • In FY 2019, 1,214,300 applications were filed online, a 10.4% increase from the 1,100,242 filed in FY 2018.
  • USCIS added three forms (N-600, N-600K, and I-539) during FY 2019 for a total of eight forms (I-90, I-131A, N-336, N-400, N-565, N-600, N-600K and I-551) available now for online filing.
  • USCIS plans to add several more forms for electronic filing during FY 2020, including the I-485, I-765, I-131, I-129 and I-589.
  • Additionally, USCIS stood up FIRST, the federal government’s first fully electronic FOIA/Privacy Act request and delivery system that allows users to submit and track FOIA requests and receive documents digitally. In FY 2019, more than 26,000 electronic responses have been delivered to indivduals with online accounts.

Information Services Modernization Program

In FY 2019, USCIS expanded the Information Services Modernization Program (InfoMod). InfoMod saves both applicants and the agency time by enabling hundreds of thousands applicants who would have otherwise required an in-person appointment at a USCIS office to have their inquiries answered through the agency’s suite of self-help tools online and over the phone. Under InfoMod, applicants still in need of in-person appointment services for certain issues, such as emergency travel documentation, are now able to schedule appointments without being turned away due to lack of availability. 

Self-Help Tools

USCIS has continued to expand and enhance the self-help tools available to applicants online and through the agency’s Contact Center with the goal of providing more efficient, timely service. Due to these improvements, USCIS has seen an 13% increase in the number of individuals using USCIS’ digital tools since FY 2018. The number of myUSCIS sessions reached 35,138,900 in FY 2019 compared, with 31,079,323 in FY 2018.

For more information on USCIS and our programs, please visit uscis.gov or follow us on Twitter (@uscis), Instagram (/uscis), YouTube (/uscis), and Facebook (/uscis).

SECNAV Names Future Destroyer in Honor of US Navy Medal of Honor Recipient

WASHINGTON (NNS) — Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer named a future Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, DDG 134, in honor of U.S. Navy Hospitalman John E. Kilmer, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his service during the Korean War.

“Hospitalman Kilmer was a hero whose efforts during the Korean War continue to inspire,” Spencer said. “His dedication to his teammates represents everything good about our integrated Naval force.”

A medical field technician with the Fleet Marine Force, Kilmer was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor June 18, 1953. He was killed Aug. 13, 1952 as a result of enemy action while caring for the wounded during the attack on Bunker Hill. He shielded another man from enemy fire with his body and was mortally wounded.

From Kilmer’s Medal of Honor citation, “With his company engaged in defending a vitally important hill position well forward of the main line of resistance during an assault by large concentrations of hostile troops, Kilmer repeatedly braved intense enemy mortar, artillery and sniper fire to move from one position to another, administering aide to the wounded and expediting their evacuation.”

Kilmer was born in Highland Park, Illinois, and enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1947 as an Apprentice Seaman in Houston, Texas. Kilmer was serving with a Marine rifle company in the First Marine Division at the time of his death. He had previously served aboard USS Repose (AH 16) and at multiple locations in California.

Arleigh Burke-class destroyers conduct a variety of operations, from peacetime presence and crisis response to sea control and power projection. The future USS John E. Kilmer (DDG 134) will be capable of fighting air, surface and subsurface battles simultaneously and will contain a combination of offensive and defensive weapon systems to support maritime warfare, including integrated air and missile defense and vertical launch capabilities.

USS John E. Kilmer will be constructed at Bath Iron Works, a division of General Dynamics in Bath, Maine. The ship will be 509 feet long, have a beam of 59 feet and be capable of operating in excess of 30 knots.

For more information, visit www.navy.mil, www.facebook.com/usnavy, or www.twitter.com/usnavy.

For more news from Secretary of the Navy, visit www.navy.mil/local/secnav/.

NASA’s Role in Studying Earth’s Atmosphere – Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet

NASA satellite image depicting a swath of air pollution sweeping east across the Korean peninsula to Japan. Credit: NASA

NASA satellite image depicting a swath of air pollution sweeping east across the Korean peninsula to Japan. Credit: NASA

Studying Earth’s atmospheric composition is a key focus area for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate and Earth Science Division. NASA’s Atmospheric Composition focus area conducts research on Earth’s atmosphere, including its chemical and physical properties, Earth’s energy budget and air quality. The focus area studies the variations in and processes that affect aerosols, clouds and trace gases like ozone, which influence climate, weather and air quality.

The Atmospheric Composition focus area provides observations and modeling tools to assess the effects of climate change on ozone recovery and future atmospheric composition; improve climate forecasts based on fluctuations in global environmental change; and model past, present and future air quality, both regionally and globally. This research, combined with observations, data assimilation and modeling, improves society’s ability to predict how future changes in atmospheric composition will affect climate, weather and air quality.

NASA researchers are interested in the following overarching research questions:

  • How is atmospheric composition changing?
  • What trends in atmospheric composition and solar radiation influence global climate?
  • How does atmospheric composition respond to and affect global environmental change?
  • What are the effects of global atmospheric composition and climate change on regional air quality?
  • How will future changes in atmospheric composition affect ozone, climate and global air quality?

The agency’s four major atmospheric composition research programs include:

  • The Upper Atmosphere Research Program (UARP), which studies the processes and reactions that control the amount of ozone in the upper troposphere and stratosphere.
  • The Tropospheric Composition Program (TCP), which studies global tropospheric ozone and aerosols, including their chemical precursors and the reactions involved in their formation and transformation into other chemical compounds. These measurements are fundamental to better understanding air quality and climate.
  • The Radiation Sciences Program (RSP), which conducts research to better understand and predict how aerosols, clouds and gases scatter and absorb both solar and terrestrially emitted radiation in Earth’s atmosphere, especially as it relates to climate variability and change.
  • The Atmospheric Composition Modeling and Analysis Program (ACMAP), which uses models to help integrate observations from multiple satellite, airborne- and ground-based instruments in four main areas: air quality and oxidation efficiency in the troposphere, how pollution-sourced aerosols affect cloud properties, stratospheric chemistry and ozone depletion and interactions between atmospheric chemistry and climate.

These programs are supported by NASA’s broad fleet of Earth observing satellites, together with numerous ground- and aircraft-based suborbital investigations. A number of additional satellite and aircraft missions are currently in development or under study.


Table listing the missions, campaigns, and instruments relevant to NASA's Atmospheric Composition focus area in all phases of operation.
Table listing the missions, campaigns, and instruments relevant to NASA’s Atmospheric Composition focus area in all phases of operation. Credit: NASA

For more on how NASA studies Earth’s atmosphere, visit:

https://science.nasa.gov/earth-science/programs/research-analysis/atmospheric-composition

— Alan Buis/NASA’s Global Climate Change website

‹ Back to main article: ‘The Atmosphere: Tracking the Ongoing Recovery of Earth’s Ozone Hole

The Atmosphere: Tracking the Ongoing Recovery of Earth’s Ozone Hole – Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet

Part Three

As discussed earlier in this feature series (see Parts One and Two), Earth’s atmosphere is largely able to cleanse itself of pollutants, but there are a few things that humans have produced that are much more long-lived when emitted into the atmosphere, degrading its quality and creating harmful environmental effects.

One such family of chemical compounds is chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), whose contribution to depleting ozone in Earth’s upper atmosphere has led to large springtime decreases in ozone around Earth’s polar regions, especially over Antarctica, a phenomenon known as the ozone hole that was first reported in 1985. But, as NASA atmospheric scientist Nathaniel Livesey explains, today, thanks to the phase-out of CFCs, Earth’s ozone hole is in recovery. He says the turnaround provides a great example of what humans can do when they work together to solve a global atmospheric problem.

“Humans produced a lot of CFCs from the 1950s through the early 1990s that were useful for a variety of purposes and widely adopted around the world,” said Livesey, principal investigator for the Microwave Limb Sounder (MLS) instrument on NASA’s Aura satellite at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The CFCs were added to the atmosphere at the parts per billion level. “But CFCs were also very effective at depleting stratospheric ozone, which protects us from harmful solar ultraviolet radiation, and their use created a hole in Earth’s stratospheric ozone layer. Luckily, we were able to identify the problem in time and come to a worldwide agreement, the Montreal Protocol, which phased out their use.”


Long-term changes in Arctic total ozone are evident in this series of total ozone maps derived from satellite observations.
Long-term changes in Arctic total ozone are evident in this series of total ozone maps derived from satellite observations. Each map is an average during March, the month when some ozone depletion is usually observed in the Arctic. In the 1970s, the Arctic region had normal ozone values in March, with values of 450 DU and above (red colors). Ozone depletion on the scale of the Antarctic ozone hole does not occur in the Arctic. Instead, late winter/early spring ozone depletion has eroded the normal high values of total ozone. On the maps from the late 2000s and early 2010s, the extent of values of 450 DU and above is greatly reduced in comparison with the 1970s maps. The large regions of low total ozone in 1997 and 2011 (blue colors) are unusual in the Arctic record, but not unexpected. The meteorological conditions led to below-average stratospheric temperatures and a strong polar vortex in these winters, conditions favorable to strong ozone depletion. Credit: NOAA

Under the Montreal Protocol, which was finalized in 1987, and its 2016 amendment, a multi-phased plan was implemented involving the use of hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), which aren’t as damaging to the environment as CFCs and could be used in the same equipment, since their chemical structure is very similar to CFCs. But HCFCs also contribute to ozone layer destruction, albeit at a smaller rate than CFCs did, as well as to global warming, so their use is also being gradually phased out over the next decade.

While the Montreal Protocol is a great success story, Livesey cautions that tackling Earth’s carbon dioxide and methane emission problems will be more difficult to address.

“People everywhere used CFCs but, in actuality, there were only about four companies in the world that actually produced them,” he said. “With carbon dioxide, the problem is much more complex. All of us produce carbon dioxide. And there are way more coal-burning power plants than there ever were CFC plants. Methane emissions resulting from human activities are also a major contributor. So it’s very hard to point to one thing to fix the problem like we could with CFCs.”

Livesey says Earth’s recent temperature increases simply cannot be explained without accounting for human emissions of carbon dioxide, which builds up over time and has a long life once emitted into the atmosphere. To those who claim that carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases don’t have a significant impact on global warming, he offers a simple scientific experiment.


Unprecedented Arctic Ozone Loss in 2011
Left: Ozone in Earth’s stratosphere at an altitude of approximately 12 miles (20 kilometers) in mid-March 2011, near the peak of the 2011 Arctic ozone loss. Red colors represent high levels of ozone, while purple and grey colors (over the north polar region) represent very small ozone amounts. Right: chlorine monoxide — the primary agent of chemical ozone destruction in the cold polar lower stratosphere — for the same day and altitude. Light blue and green colors represent small amounts of chlorine monoxide, while dark blue and black colors represent very large chlorine monoxide amounts. The white line marks the area within which the chemical ozone destruction took place. Credit: NASA-JPL/Caltech

“Take a gallon of water and put a drop of food coloring in it. You’re going to immediately notice a change,” he said. “The same is true for adding trace greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. It doesn’t take very much of an increase before their presence literally changes the color of the atmosphere as observed by infrared satellite instruments.”

Livesey says the MLS instrument has contributed to our understanding of atmospheric ozone. For example, it’s been instrumental in verifying the recovery of the ozone layer. MLS has also contributed to studies of how much stratospheric ozone descends into the lower atmosphere, contributing to surface pollution. Surface-level ozone pollution has a detrimental impact on plant growth, resulting in billions of dollars in estimated crop losses.

“NASA is mandated to study the upper atmosphere, and the word ozone appears in that mandate,” Livesay says. “It’s also in the U.S. Clean Air Act. NASA has spearheaded numerous ozone research campaigns and has contributed to many of the big-name atmospheric ozone models. We’ve done a lot of work on satellite measurements of air quality. And the A Train constellation of atmospheric research satellites, of which Aura/MLS is one component, has been a huge benefit to the atmospheric science community.” (Learn more about NASA’s role in studying Earth’s atmosphere.)


The A Train satellite constellation.
The A Train satellite constellation. Credit: NASA

In addition to ozone, MLS tracks water vapor, numerous trace gasses and mid-atmospheric temperatures.


MLS observes the details of ozone chemistry by measuring many radicals, reservoirs, and source gases in chemical cycles that destroy ozone.
MLS observes the details of ozone chemistry by measuring many radicals, reservoirs, and source gases in chemical cycles that destroy ozone. Credit: NASA/GSFC Scientific Visualization Studio

Regarding water vapor, Livesey says scientists still don’t fully understand the processes that control humidity in the stratosphere. For example, in 2000, measurements showed the amount of stratospheric water vapor decreased by about 10 percent, which slowed the rate of global surface temperature increases by about 25 percent. But scientists are still not completely sure why it decreased. “Since stratospheric water vapor is a greenhouse gas, we want to be able to predict its future evolution well,” he said. “We don’t yet fully understand the interplay of the various processes involved and how they will evolve in a warming climate. MLS data are contributing to atmospheric models that are assisting in this area of research.”

One of the biggest surprises from MLS data has been its observations of a phenomenon that allows pollution from strong forest fires to penetrate into the stratosphere. Fires are a significant contributor to stratospheric aerosols and thus have the potential to affect surface warming. “MLS has allowed us to track this pollution around the globe. We wouldn’t have guessed before that a single forest fire could do that,” Livesey said.”


A trio of NASA satellites observe in synchrony the vertical structures of thunderstorms (lower track) and their influences on ice clouds (color shades), water vapor (contours) and pollutants just above Earth's lower atmosphere (higher track).
A trio of NASA satellites observe in synchrony the vertical structures of thunderstorms (lower track) and their influences on ice clouds (color shades), water vapor (contours) and pollutants just above Earth’s lower atmosphere (higher track). Credit: Rong Fu, Cinda Gillilan, Jonathan H. Jiang and Brian Knosp

As the MLS data record approaches 15 years, Livesey says he’s hopeful MLS will continue to provide important science for several more years. The instrument continues to work well and the biggest limitation on its life is the amount of fuel on the Aura spacecraft, which should run out in about 2025, although the team is considering adopting a less fuel-intensive orbit maintenance strategy that could add several more years of operations.

“The longer our data record goes, the more valuable it becomes,” he said.

For more on MLS, visit https://mls.jpl.nasa.gov/index-eos-mls.php.


Part Two of this series: ‘The Atmosphere: Getting a Handle on Carbon Dioxide’

Next up: ‘The Atmosphere: Fresh Insights on Air Quality, Ozone and Climate’

ICE Homeland Security Investigations agents perform life-saving measures to man overdosing on fentanyl-laced pills

SEATTLE – The swift actions of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) special agents likely saved the life of a man arrested during a drug operation conducted by HSI’s High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force (HHTF), Sept. 30.

Since February, the HSI task force has been conducting an investigation of a group of drug traffickers selling extremely dangerous fentanyl-laced pills. HSI officers from Seattle set out to disrupt the drug flow and dismantle the trafficking organization. During the planned operation, HSI agents observed two suspects, one in a Ford Taurus and another in a Nissan Altima, conducting a “car-to-car” drug transaction near a local casino. Officers quickly moved to detain the occupants and successfully apprehended the suspect in the Ford without incident. Once in custody, officers noted several items of investigative importance, to include large amounts of bulk currency in the Ford.

Despite commands from the officers, the presence of multiple law enforcement vehicles and an overhead helicopter, the driver of the Nissan attempted to flee. HSI agents and task force officers successfully used tactical maneuvers to eventually block his escape. Although cornered, the occupants refused to obey verbal commands and would not exit the vehicle, forcing officers to breach the windows. The officers extracted the occupants and seized large quantities of bulk currency, fentanyl pills, a firearm and documentary evidence.

“These substances contain a mixture of drugs that are extremely dangerous to the unsuspecting buyer,” said Brad Bench, special agent in charge for HSI Seattle. “Individuals are placing their lives on the line for a high, to hide evidence or both. The criminals who sell these pills are more concerned about lining their pockets than the individuals they sell to.”

Prior to being transported to King County Jail, one of the suspects began vomiting, lost consciousness and stopped breathing. Officers pulled the subject from the vehicle, cleared his throat of vomit and placed him in the recovery position. The supervising HSI agent ordered the application of naloxone, which once administered, helped the subject to regain consciousness. HSI agents continued to provide life-sustaining measures until emergency medical services (EMS) personnel arrived at the scene.

Once EMS arrived and began treating the suspect, he attempted to ingest pieces of his own vomit, presumably to destroy the narcotics evidence. HSI agents examined the vomit and discovered several pieces of the fentanyl pills.

Agents followed the subject to a local hospital and stayed with him until he was medically cleared.

“The quick actions of HSI agents, in combination with emergency services personnel and our law enforcement partners, not only saved the life of the overdosing subject, but potentially his drug-seeking customers,” said Bench. “I can’t emphasize enough how dangerous these drugs are. If you’re buying illegal drugs, you’re gambling with your life.”

High intensity drug trafficking area task forces bring law enforcement agency partners together to combat drug-trafficking crimes in designated areas around the country that have a high concentration of narcotic distribution, transportation, smuggling and other drug-related activities.

To learn more about what HSI is doing to combat the opioid crisis visit https://www.ice.gov/features/opioid-crisis.

Individuals across the world can report suspicious criminal activity to the ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Tip Line 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Highly trained specialists take reports from both the public and law enforcement agencies on more than 400 laws enforced by ICE HSI. To report criminal activity call 866-DHS-2-ICE (866-347-2423).

South Korean national and hundreds of others charged worldwide in the takedown of the largest darknet child pornography website funded by bitcoin

WASHINGTON – Jong Woo Son, 23, a South Korean national, was indicted by a federal grand jury in the District of Columbia for his operation of Welcome To Video, the largest child sexual exploitation market by volume of content. The nine-count indictment was unsealed today along with a parallel civil forfeiture action. Son has also been charged and convicted in South Korea and is currently in custody serving his sentence in South Korea. An additional 337 site users residing in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington State and Washington, D.C. as well as the United Kingdom, South Korea, Germany, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the Czech Republic, Canada, Ireland, Spain, Brazil and Australia have been arrested and charged. 

Acting Executive Associate Director Alysa Erichs of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, U.S. Attorney Jessie K. Liu for the District of Columbia, and Chief Don Fort of IRS Criminal Investigation (IRS-CI) made the announcement.

“Children are our most vulnerable population, and crimes such as these are unthinkable,” said HSI Acting Executive Associate Director Alysa Erichs. “Sadly, advances in technology have enabled child predators to hide behind the dark web and cryptocurrency to further their criminal activity. However, today’s indictment sends a strong message to criminals that no matter how sophisticated the technology or how widespread the network, child exploitation will not be tolerated in the United States. Our entire justice system will stop at nothing to prevent these heinous crimes, safeguard our children, and bring justice to all.”

“Darknet sites that profit from the sexual exploitation of children are among the most vile and reprehensible forms of criminal behavior,” said Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. “This Administration will not allow child predators to use lawless online spaces as a shield. Today’s announcement demonstrates that the Department of Justice remains firmly committed to working closely with our partners in South Korea and around the world to rescue child victims and bring to justice the perpetrators of these abhorrent crimes.”

“Children around the world are safer because of the actions taken by U.S. and foreign law enforcement to prosecute this case and recover funds for victims,” said U.S. Attorney Jessie K. Liu. “We will continue to pursue such criminals on and off the darknet in the United States and abroad, to ensure they receive the punishment their terrible crimes deserve.”

“Through the sophisticated tracing of bitcoin transactions, IRS-CI special agents were able to determine the location of the Darknet server, identify the administrator of the website and ultimately track down the website server’s physical location in South Korea,” said IRS-CI Chief Don Fort. “This largescale criminal enterprise that endangered the safety of children around the world is no more. Regardless of the illicit scheme, and whether the proceeds are virtual or tangible, we will continue to work with our federal and international partners to track down these disgusting organizations and bring them to justice.”

According to the indictment, on March 5, 2018, agents from the IRS-CI, HSI, National Crime Agency in the United Kingdom, and Korean National Police in South Korea arrested Son and seized the server that he used to operate a Darknet market that exclusively advertised child sexual exploitation videos available for download by members of the site. The operation resulted in the seizure of approximately eight terabytes of child sexual exploitation videos, which is one of the largest seizures of its kind. The images, which are currently being analyzed by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), contained over 250,000 unique videos, and 45 percent of the videos currently analyzed contain new images that have not been previously known to exist.

Welcome To Video offered these videos for sale using the cryptocurrency bitcoin. Typically, sites of this kind give users a forum to trade in these depictions. This Darknet website is among the first of its kind to monetize child exploitation videos using bitcoin. In fact, the site itself boasted over one million downloads of child exploitation videos by users. Each user received a unique bitcoin address when the user created an account on the website. An analysis of the server revealed that the website had more than one million bitcoin addresses, signifying that the website had capacity for at least one million users.

The agencies have shared data from the seized server with law enforcement around the world to assist in identifying and prosecuting customers of the site. This has resulted in leads sent to 38 countries and yielded arrests of 337 subjects around the world. The operation has resulted in searches of residences and businesses of approximately 92 individuals in the United States. Notably, the operation is responsible for the rescue of at least 23 minor victims residing in the United States, Spain and the United Kingdom, who were being actively abused by the users of the site.

In the Washington, D.C.-metropolitan area, the operation has led to the execution of five search warrants and eight arrests of individuals who both conspired with the administrator of the site and were themselves, users of the website. Two users of the Darknet market committed suicide subsequent to the execution of search warrants.

Amongst the sites users charged are:

  • Charles Wunderlich, 34, of Hot Springs, California, was charged in the District of Columbia with conspiracy to distribute child pornography;
  • Brian James LaPrath, 34, of San Diego, California, was arrested in the District of Columbia, for international money laundering; and was sentenced to serve 18 months in prison followed by three years of supervised release;
  • Ernest Wagner, 70, of Federal Way, Washington, was arrested and charged in the District of Columbia with conspiracy to distribute child pornography;
  • Vincent Galarzo, 28, of Glendale, New York, was arrested and charged in the District of Columbia with conspiracy to distribute child pornography;
  • Michael Ezeagbor, 22, of Pflugerville, Texas, was arrested and charged in the District of Columbia with conspiracy to distribute child pornography;
  • Nicholas Stengel, 45, of Washington, D.C., pleaded guilty to receipt of child pornography and money laundering and was sentenced to serve 15 years in prison followed by a lifetime of supervised release;
  • Eryk Mark Chamberlin, 25, of Worcester, Massachusetts, pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography and is pending sentencing;
  • Jairo Flores, 30, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, pleaded guilty in the District of Massachusetts to receipt and possession of child pornography and was sentenced to serve five years in prison followed by five years of supervised release;
  • Billy Penaloza, 29, of Dorchester, Massachusetts, pleaded guilty in the District of Massachusetts to possession and receipt of child pornography. His sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 22, 2019;
  • Michael Armstrong, 35, of Randolph, Massachusetts, pleaded guilty in the District of Massachusetts, to receipt and possession of child pornography. He was sentenced to serve five years in prison followed by five years of supervised release. Restitution will be determined at a future date;
  • Al Ramadhanu Soedomo, 28, of Lynn, Massachusetts, pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography and was sentenced in the District of Massachusetts (Boston), to serve 12 months and one day followed by five years of supervised release;
  • Phillip Sungmin Hong, 24, of Sharon, Massachusetts, pleaded guilty in the District of Massachusetts (Boston), to receipt and possession of child pornography and is pending sentencing;
  • Eliseo Arteaga Jr., 28, of Mesquite, Texas, pleaded guilty in the Northern District of Texas to possession of prepubescent child pornography. He is pending sentencing;
  • Richard Nikolai Gratkowski, 40, of San Antonio, Texas, a former HSI special agent, was arrested in the Western District of Texas. Gratkowski pleaded guilty to the indictment charging one count of receipt of child pornography and one count of access with intent to view child pornography. Gratkowski was sentenced to serve 70 months in prison followed by 10 years of supervised release, and ordered to pay $35,000 in restitution to seven victims and a $10,000 assessment;
  • Paul Casey Whipple, 35, of Hondo, Texas, a U.S. Border Patrol Agent, was arrested in the Western District of Texas, on charges of sexual exploitation of children/minors, production, distribution, and possession of child pornography. Whipple remains in custody awaiting trial in San Antonio;
  • Michael Lawson, 36, of Midland, Georgia, was arrested in the Middle District of Georgia on charges of attempted sexual exploitation of children and possession of child pornography. He was sentenced to serve 121 months in prison followed by 10 years of supervised release following his plea to a superseding information charging him with one count of receipt of child pornography;
  • Kevin Christopher Eagan, 39, of Brookhaven, Georgia, pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography in the Northern District of Georgia;
  • Casey Santioius Head, 37, of Griffin, Georgia, was indicted in the Northern District of Georgia for distribution, receipt, and possession of child pornography;
  • Andrew C. Chu, 28, of Garwood, New Jersey, was arrested and charged with receipt of child pornography. Those charges remain pending;
  • Nader Hamdi Ahmed, 29 of Jersey City, New Jersey, was arrested in the District of New Jersey, for sexual exploitation or other abuse of children. Ahmed pleaded guilty to an information charging him with one count of distribution of child pornography. He is scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 1, 2019;
  • Jeffrey Lee Harris, 32, of Pickens, South Carolina, pleaded guilty in the District of South Carolina for producing, distributing, and possessing child pornography;
  • Laine Ormand Clark Jr., 27, of Conway, South Carolina, was arrested and charged in U.S. District Court in South Carolina Division for sexual possession of child pornography;
  • Jack R. Dove III, 38, of Lakeland, Florida, was arrested in the Middle District of Florida for knowingly receiving and possessing visual depictions of minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct;
  • Michael Matthew White, 39, of Miami Beach, Florida, was arrested in the Southern District of Florida for coercion and enticement;
  • Nikolas Bennion Bradshaw, 24, of Bountiful, Utah, was arrested in the State of Utah, and charged with five counts of sexual exploitation of a minor, and was sentenced to time served with 91 days in jail followed by probation;
  • Michael Don Gibbs, 37, of Holladay, Utah, was charged in the District of Utah with receipt of child pornography and possession of child pornography;
  • Ammar Atef H. Alahdali, 22, of Arlington, Virginia, pleaded guilty in the Eastern District of Virginia to receipt of child pornography and was sentenced to serve five years in prison and ordered to pay $3,000 in restitution;
  • Mark Lindsay Rohrer, 38, of West Hartford, Connecticut, pleaded guilty in the District of Connecticut to receipt of child pornography and was sentenced to serve 60 months in prison followed by five years of supervised release;
  • Eugene Edward Jung, 47, of San Francisco, California, was indicted in the Northern District of California on possession of child pornography and receipt of child pornography;
  • James Daosaeng, 25, of Springdale, Arkansas, pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography and was sentenced in the Western District of Arkansas (Fayetteville) to serve 97 months in prison followed by 20 years of supervised release;
  • Alex Daniel Paxton, 30, of Columbus, Ohio, was arrested and indicted in Franklin County Ohio Court of Common Pleas for pandering sexually oriented matter involving a minor;
  • Don Edward Pannell, 32, of Harvey, Louisiana, pleaded guilty in the Eastern District of Louisiana for receipt of child pornography. He is pending sentencing;
  • Ryan Thomas Carver, 29, of Huntsville, Alabama, was arrested and charged under Alabama State Law. He was charged federally in the Northern District of Alabama with possession of child pornography. His case is pending in Huntsville, Alabama;
  • Andrew Buckley, 28, of the United Kingdom, pleaded guilty to 10 offences in the UK of possession and distribution of indecent images of children, possession of extreme and prohibited images and possession of a class A drug. He was sentenced to serve 40 months in prison for the distribution of indecent images and possession of class A drugs. Buckley is also subject to an indefinite Sexual Harm Prevention Order;
  • Kyle Fox, 26, of the United Kingdom, pleaded guilty to 22 counts including rape, sexual assault, and sharing indecent images, and was sentenced to serve 22 years in prison; and
  • Mohammed Almaker, 26, of Fort Collins, Colorado, was arrested in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), charged with KSA Law involving the endangerment of children. He is awaiting judicial proceedings in furtherance of criminal charges.

A forfeiture complaint was also unsealed today. The complaint alleges that law enforcement was able to trace payments of bitcoin to the Darknet site by following the flow of funds on the blockchain. The virtual currency accounts identified in the complaint were allegedly used by 24 individuals in five countries to fund the website and promote the exploitation of children. The forfeiture complaint seeks to recover these funds and, ultimately through the restoration process, return the illicit funds to victims of the crime.

The charges in the indictment are merely allegations, and all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

The international investigations were led by HSI, IRS-CI,  and the NCA. The Korean National Police of the Republic of Korea, the National Crime Agency of the United Kingdom and the German Federal Criminal Police (the Bundeskriminalamt), aided and coordinated with their parallel investigations. The Department of Justice’s Office of International Affairs of the Criminal Division provided significant assistance.