Politics & Policy

Hillary and the Immigration Bribe

(Getty Images)
It sure looks like a quid pro quo.

This is the sort of story that ends — or should end — careers.

According to Wednesday’s New York Times, the Obama White House, at the behest of Hillary Clinton’s State Department and New Jersey senator Robert Menendez, waived an immigration ban against an Ecuadorian national after her family gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democratic campaigns in 2012.

“The woman, Estefanía Isaías, had been barred from coming to the United States after being caught fraudulently obtaining visas for her maids,” the Times reports. “But the ban was lifted at the request of the State Department under former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton so that Ms. Isaías could work for an Obama fund-raiser with close ties to the administration.” That fundraiser, Alfredo J. Balsera, head of Balsera Communications in Miami, is backing Clinton in 2016.

In the spring of 2011, barred from entering the United States, Isaías’s wealthy, well-connected family appealed to the administration. A $30,000 donation from Isaías’s mother, María Mercedes, to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, then headed by Menendez, preceded an appeal to the senator, whose staff worked with Isaías for several months to no avail — at which point Menendez appealed personally to Cheryl Mills, Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff at Foggy Bottom. In mid-May 2012, the Obama administration reversed Isaías’s ban, days after a $40,000 donation to the Obama Victory Fund. One month later, Menendez began appeals on behalf of Isaías’s sister, María, also banned from the U.S. for smuggling maids into the country. About the same time, Mercedes donated another $20,000 to the Obama Victory Fund.

Who are Estefanía Isaías’s well-off kin? Her brothers, Roberto and William, live in Florida as self-styled refugees from an Ecuadorian government that, they say, has singled them out for persecution. In 1998, when Ecuador’s banking industry collapsed, the government took over the brothers’ institution, Filanbanco, into which it poured over $1 billion in a bailout effort. The government subsequently claimed that it was duped and that the Isaías brothers had offered doctored balance statements that misrepresented the bank’s fiscal stability. After a lull, newly elected president Rafael Correa, an admirer of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, renewed the accusation, suing the pair in Miami circuit court. In May 2013, a judge ruled that, whatever happened in Ecuador, the United States is under no legal obligation to enforce another country’s laws. One year earlier, the brothers were sentenced in absentia by an Ecuadorian court to eight years in prison. The Obama administration has refused multiple extradition requests.

The brothers claim that they are trying to bring attention to human-rights and civil-rights abuses in Ecuador, and that their contributions go to candidates advancing that cause. But the administration has good reason to treat the Isaías brothers favorably: Through spouses, children, and employees (since the brothers do not have green cards), Roberto and William Isaías have donated more than $300,000 to American campaigns since 2010, including $90,000 to President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. The donations are largely to Democrats and Democratic campaign committees, but smaller donations have also gone to a few Florida Republicans, such as Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Senator Marco Rubio.

Since 2011, the Isaías brothers have been under investigation by the Department of Homeland Security on suspicion of money-laundering. At least as early as 2005, American officials were trying to revoke the pair’s visas on account of similar suspicions. It is possible that, in violation of federal law, ill-gotten money in not-insignificant sums made its way into the 2012 election cycle, among others.

For their part, Menendez’s office, the State Department, and the White House all maintain that Estefanía Isaías’s case was handled according to the normal protocol. But others suggest differently. According to Linda Jewell, American ambassador to Ecuador from 2005 to 2008, “such close and detailed involvement by a congressional office in an individual visa case would be quite unusual, especially for an applicant who is not a constituent of the member of Congress.” Jay Brown, chairman of the New York State Bar Immigration Committee and an immigration lawyer for more than three decades, told NBC 4 New York that this type of involvement by top officials in a visa dispute was, to his knowledge, unprecedented.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine that a sitting senior senator regularly appeals directly to the secretary of state’s office to secure a visa — especially for someone who is not even his own constituent.

It would be Pollyannaish to suppose that this scandal will gain more traction than the several others that have sparked outrage, then evaporated — Fast and Furious, the VA, the IRS, etc. — but it should, because a bribe is hard to mistake, and the timeline here is damning: Money shows up, then a high government official takes action.

Menendez is under federal investigation for his part in this scheme, but the investigation should extend to the Clinton State Department, particularly to Mills. If it turns out that Hillary Clinton’s right-hand woman participated in this criminal scheme, the former secretary of state should be subjected to the harshest scrutiny. And it would be difficult to spin the inquiry as a partisan hit job: The original report, after all, originated in America’s paper of record.

For Republicans, who have for years declined to work with the president on immigration because he “refused to enforce the laws already on the books,” these revelations should come as vindication. It should already have been alarming that, despite her ban, Isaías secured six temporary waivers to enter the country; but that was insufficient. For several top officials, the law was simply a matter of convenience, able to be disregarded as soon as doing so proved lucrative.

This is old-fashioned bribery, countenanced and encouraged by several influential figures in the Democratic party: shameless, shameful, and — keep this constantly in mind — criminal.

— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.


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