Skip to main content

An official website of the United States government

Episode 6: Security Clearance 101

Careers at ICE Podcast

During this episode, John Schwink, the Division Chief for Personal Security in ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility, discusses the pre-employment personnel security process that all ICE applicants must undergo, an attempt to pull back the curtain on the security clearance procedures and processes.

>> Welcome to the Careers at ICE podcast. This podcast highlights career opportunities at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the hiring process, and how to put your best foot forward. Today we’ll learn about getting through the ICE security process. I’m joined by Mr. John Schwink, who is the Division Chief for Personal Security in ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility. John and I will discuss the pre-employment personnel security process that all ICE applicants must undergo to determine if they have suitability and/or security issues that would not promote the integrity or efficiency of the agency. All Federal applicants require suitability determinations and depending on the duties and sensitivities of the position, may require National Security eligibility and National Security access determinations. Let’s get the conversation started. Thanks for joining me today, John. First, tell me about the Office of Professional Responsibility, Personal Security Unit and its role here at ICE.

>> Sure. First of all, thank you for having me today. We at OPR are definitely trying to become a much more transparent organization and pull back the curtain on our procedures and processes. This is a great opportunity. First, we are a part of the OPR multi-layered organizational structure to ensure that we ensure the integrity of the organization. That is done through security, inspections, and investigations. We are part of the security division, and we are responsible for ensuring that individuals that come as an applicant, employee, or a contractor, are trustworthy, honest, reliable, and we do that through what is called a risk-based approach. When we look at people’s forms, we look at their criminal histories, financials, and others that I know that we will get into. So, we are one of the approaches that OPR utilizes as a tool to ensure, again, the efficiency and integrity of ICE is maintained.

>> As you know, to get through the ICE security process, the federal government requires applicants to undergo extensive background checks. Can you describe to our listeners what that process entails?

>> Sure. Every applicant, whether you are federal or a contractor, must go through the Personnel Security Unit, prior to you receiving either an Entry On Duty date from the Office of Human Capital, or through your Contracting Officer’s Representative, if you are a contractor. The first step, however, which I do think the audience will want to know about, is the fact that we check for what is known as reciprocity. This means that we actually will go out to repositories and look to see if an individual has a current background investigation, or a current security clearance that we can utilize here at ICE to bring the individual on in a much timely manner. This also saves the agency money for the simple fact that we do not have to do a background investigation on the individual. If an individual does meet the reciprocity requirements, we immediately notify the Office of Human Capital that the individual has been cleared by the Personnel Security Unit, and then as well as the Contracting Officer’s Representative, should it be a contractor. This will allow an individual to begin work prior to a background investigation being conducted. However, should the individual not meet reciprocity, then this is where most of probably the audience is going to fall into, where they will then actually receive a notification from our office advising them to please complete their Electronic Questionnaires for Investigative Processing, which is known as e-QIP, more commonly known. We will also ask them to fill out a fingerprint cards, and then submit what we label here as a security packet to our office. It entails, again, e-QIP, other forms, your fingerprints, and such. Once that is complete, and the individual went online and completed their e-QIP, and sent us their fingerprint cards, a Federal Security specialist will then run the individuals criminal history, run their financial history, and run some other preliminary check repositories that we are required to do to ensure that we make the best decision that we can. This is also the first step in the process where an individual will have a decision made on their employment. If it is favorable, and there are no issues during the criminal history, or the financial, or the review of forms, or to citizenship, we will then notify the Office of Human Capital or the COR that the individual has been approved. If we do find issues, then we are going to reach out to the individual. We are going to afford them the opportunity to address and to mitigate any information that we have uncovered. Again, this is a preliminary decision. It’s not meant to be the final suitability or security, but as an agency we found that making the risk-based decisions and allowing individuals to start working a little sooner would be starting to get more employee, rather than losing them to other federal agencies or contractors. One other highlight I do want to make is that if the audience is either a criminal investigator or deportation officer, at the entry-level we do now have a polygraph program. So that will be incorporated into this, if you elected to take a polygraph. Then as well, this is one part of the pre-employment process. The Office of Human Capital are the ones who actually set the Entry on Duty dates. So, while we are one part of it, there are other parts you have to clear.

>> Great. Now that our listeners know what to expect in the beginning, let’s talk about the personal security investigation. Who’s responsible for scheduling it? What can ICE applicants expect when being interviewed by an investigator?

>> Sure. So, we have here at ICE what is known Delegated Authority. What that means is that we have the ability to conduct our own background investigations. We do not have to utilize, used to be formerly OPM, now is the National Background Investigation Bureau. And so, we have vendors that perform the background investigations on our behalf. Our program does, actually, schedule the investigations with one of our vendors, and our vendors are located all throughout the country. We have investigators in all states. We then will schedule that background investigations with one of vendors. They will then reach out and contact the individual and identify who they are with. They will also identify that it is being conducted on behalf of our agency so that individual knows that it is legitimate. Once the individual reaches out the them, they will set up what is called a subject interview. That’s where the background investigator will see you in person. They will go over all of your forms. They will go over anything that’s been uncovered, whether it’s through reference checks, through your employment, through your criminal history, your financials. They are going to go into pretty a deep dive of your life. But it is to ensure, again, the efficiency and integrity of the agency. So, the people know their lives better then anybody. This is also their opportunity to ensure that if they made any mistakes or errors on their forms, they also have the opportunity to provide updates to the background investigator. They advise them, rather then it being uncovered down the road in part of our checks. As well, for the audience, they need to let any of their references that they put on the forms know that they have the potential to be also called and spoken to. Previous employers, if you list education as well, and if it were a requirement for that position, we are going to validate that you do have that diploma. Really, anything that they can think of in their lives, they need to contact people that they put on there and make sure that they let them know to be aware that they could be contacted. The final thing that I want to say about this is that we make sure that we demand our background investigators be professionals. So, what I want the audience to know is that if anytime during the background investigation that they feel that the investigator is not being professional, then they need to reach out to us. And, they need to let us know. And I have a website forum, actually it’s not a website. I have an email for them, and it is, and what they can do is just report any misconduct they feel as occurred, and we’re going to get in contact with them. We’re going to resolve that. So, we ensure that this is a professional process because we want them to be comfortable. We know this is opening up their lives, and so we want to make this as painless as we can.

>> Great, and just one more time for those listening. That email address is So as you’ve described, this is a very detailed process to ensure that every federal applicant is a suitable employee with ICE. Once all of the information is gathered, please explain to our listeners how it’s determined whether and applicant is suitable to work at this agency.

>> Sure. So, this is the stage where an individual has had their background investigation fully completed. We have all of the criminal histories, all of the financial histories, anything we need to make our final suitability determination. So, many times the individual is already on board at this phase, depending…there are some that are not on board. Many people are already on board. So, what will happen is a federal security specialist will review and analyze the entire life history of that individual. They’re looking to make sure at the time that they did EOD, that they were honest. And, they did provide accurate information to our Entry on Duty federal personnel security specialist. As well, they are looking for any new issues that could come up from references, from employment, or what not during the process. They’re also looking at the, what we call the, suitability factors. Some of those factors, I’m not going to go through them all because there are a lot of them. Anybody can find them online if they will just Google 5 CFR 731. They are out there. But what we are looking for is misconduct, negligence in employment, criminal or dishonest conduct, material falsification, alcohol abuse, and things like illegal use of narcotics. During that time, we also are looking for what are called mitigators, or additional considerations, which could be the nature of the position the person applied for will determine if that issue is serious. The circumstances surrounding the issue that they have. The recency of that conduct, and then as well, also the age of the individual. And as the adjudicator is analyzing the information, their utilizing what is called the “Whole Person” concept. What that means is that we don’t take one isolated incident and make that the person’s life. We’re going to analyze and see why did it occur? When did it occur? Were there circumstances that actually resulted in the person having the issue? And then, we are going to base that off of the actual position they are applying for. We’re going to make sure that there is no nexus, a connection, to the duties that they are going to be doing. For example, an individual uses marijuana when they are 16. They are now 25. They’ve had no use since that time. We not, probably, going to find them unsuitable for a position because there’s been time that has bone by. They’ve shown that they are not going to repeat that conduct. But it doesn’t mean that one isolated incident will not impact your career. For instance, if you are a transportation specialist with ERO, and you get a DUI within the last several years. That’s a problem, and we’re probably going to find you unsuitable for that position. But we don’t have automatic disqualifiers, so every person is looked at via this “Whole Person” concept.

>> And does every ICE employee have a security clearance, and is this a separate process?

>> So, no, every person at ICE does not have a security clearance as ICE does not require one. Actually, this is something we get asked all the time, or get told all the time as well. That because people believe that they were cleared by security, of course, they have a security clearance. And that is not the case. For an individual to have an actual security clearance, meaning they have access to confidential, secret, top-secret, sensitive programs. Their position actually dictates whether or not they are going to have a National Security Clearance. Some positions are automatic. Criminal investigators, deportation officers, OPLA attorneys, intel analysts are all mandatory clearance holders. And other as well, but those are mainly the ones we automatically go ahead make our determinations. While suitability, as should this person be employed with ICE in the position, the actual security determination is asking should this person be eligible to occupy a National Security position? And should we give them access to classified information. It is a very different standard. When it comes to security, we are basically looking at the interests of National Security over anything else. That has to take precedence versus what may happen in the person’s life which caused it. If we believe there is a risk to National Security, then we will have to make a denial or a revocation in the process. The factors are different. They are called guidelines, and it is a different governing authority. It is Executive Order 12968, which covers National Security. That also can be Googled, and you can find all of the security guidelines as well. There’s 13 of them, and I won’t go over again all of them. I’ll highlight some that are different between security and suitability. Here in security you’re going to find the allegiance to the United States. You’re going to find the foreign influence, foreign preference issues. Now you have psychological conditions that have to be brought into consideration. Have you ever handled classified information in the past? Have you had a security incident, and are you abusing IT technology systems? Those are different than suitability. In suitability we don’t look at foreign preference, or whether you have property overseas, or family members overseas which you’re going to inherit money from if they pass away. In security, we do. So, they are very different. However, for the applicants that are out in the audience, we want to make sure you understand we’re not going through two separate processes at different times. If you are a criminal investigator applicant, or a DO, or any of those positions that require the clearance, we’re going to make those determinations at the same time that we’re doing suitability. So the Personnel Security specialist is looking at both standards as you are going through concurrently the process, and we will make a determination at the end.

>> All ICE employees and contractors who currently work for ICE have successfully gone through this Personnel Security process. But, unfortunately, it doesn’t work out for everyone. What are some of the things that might result in an applicant being found unsuitable or denied a security clearance needed to become an ICE employee?

>> The number one issue that I have found, over my time 25 plus years of doing this, is financial issues. Whether it’s failure to pay your credit card debt, or failure to pay student loans, bankruptcies, tax liens, child support payments, financial issues always seem to be the one that people have the most difficulty with. And then criminal conduct, of course, is another major issue for a law enforcement agency. And then, dishonest conduct as I mentioned earlier. When individuals fill out their forms, we take it very serious when individuals try to circumvent the process by not telling us the truth upfront. Then later down the process we find issues that they should have advised us on. That’s a major issue for a law enforcement agency when we are protecting the integrity and as well, so are they. Then also, misconduct employment is another issue. Individuals coming to us from other federal agencies, or state agencies, or even the private sector, we want to make sure that they have a history of quality employment. Then, of course, we are Immigration and Customs Enforcement. So, we do make sure that the status of current family members are at an acceptable status for us. Because we don’t want to violate the mission of this agency by allowing individuals to come on who currently aren’t even meeting the laws of the land. I will say that when personnel do not put information on their forms, I always get told during the subject interview, at times, “Well, I didn’t think that you would find that information.” I always find that kind of funny because we are a law enforcement agency, and so, we have access to pretty much any database check that I want to find. So, as well now, the polygraph. So, I always want to tell people honesty up front is the number one thing that you can do. Let us determine whether or not that issue is going to be an issue or not. I promise you that you are going to be given the opportunity to mitigate anything that we find. So, let the process play out versus trying to circumvent it and get around it.

>> And one of the most important questions that applicants want to know is how long does the Personnel Security process take?

>> And that is a great question. I wish that I had a one size fits all answer for that. Unfortunately, every person is different. Every case is different. Every person’s life is different. However, during the initial process, which is the EOD- Entry On Duty process we talked about at the beginning, if the individual will submit a complete and accurate packet and doesn’t have any issues, our goal is to make that determination in 10 days. In FY-18, fiscal year 18, we did that 94 percent of the time. So, that goes to say that if the individual will complete their packet, and make sure that they fill it out correctly, and get it to us in a timely manner, and get their fingerprint cards in, then we are going to be able to help them by making a decision in a quicker timeframe. It doesn’t mean everybody, because usually there are going to be some things that we are going to have to resolve. So, for those individuals to whom we do have to reach out, and we do have to obtain information, then they need to make sure that they provide that to us in a timely manner. They are in control of that. We’re not going to sit there and hold their hand and walk them through sending us in the information. So, if they want a job faster, then they need to respond to us in a timely manner.

>> Mr. Schwink, thank you for joining me on the podcast and sharing your expertise with us. As always, visit the ICE website at and check out the careers section to see a list of the most current job announcements. Be sure to look out for the next episode of the Careers at ICE podcast to learn more about how to start your career in law enforcement.