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Statement of Michael R. Bromwich, Inspector General, U.S. Department of Justice, before the House Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims concerning “Nonimmigrant Visa Fraud”

Statement of

Michael R. Bromwich Inspector General, U.S. Department of Justice

before the

House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims

concerning

Nonimmigrant Visa Fraud

May 5, 1999

* * * * *

Mr. Chairman, Congresswoman Jackson Lee, and Members of the Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims:

  1. Introduction

I appreciate the opportunity to appear before the Subcommittee to discuss the work of the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) with respect to fraud involving nonimmigrant visas and other immigration documents.

Combating nonimmigrant visa fraud is a responsibility shared primarily by the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). The State Department has primary responsibility for administering immigration laws outside the United States. Specifically, the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs administers visa-processing operations at overseas posts. The primary goal of Consular Offices is to provide expeditious visa processing for qualified applicants while denying entry to individuals who pose a security threat or are likely to remain in the United States illegally. The Inspector General from the State Department can address these issues in greater detail.

Domestically, the primary responsibility for controlling entry of non-citizens into the United States falls to INS. When nonimmigrants arrive at a port of entry and present a visa and passport, an INS inspector determines whether to grant the nonimmigrant entry to this country. If the visa is machine-readable, the inspector scans it. If it is not, the inspector types the nonimmigrant’s name and date of birth into the Interagency Border Inspection System (IBIS) – commonly known as the "Lookout System."

This morning I plan to do four things during my testimony: first, provide an overview of the potential for fraud in the nonimmigrant visa program. Second, describe the OIG’s role in investigating visa and other immigration document fraud. Third, update the Subcommittee on testimony I provided two years ago this month on the steps INS has taken to address recommendations in our 1996 inspection of document fraud records corrections. And finally, briefly address the potential for fraud inherent in the Visa Waiver Pilot Program (VWPP), which comes up for reauthorization next year.

  1. Potential for Nonimmigrant Visa Fraud

In October 1998, the OIG’s Inspections Division developed an in-house reference document entitled, "Potential for Fraud in the Visa Program" that focused specifically on nonimmigrants. This document was designed to provide important background information as a prelude to doing further work in this area. To compile the report, OIG Inspectors interviewed staff from INS, the State Department, and the General Accounting Office (GAO). They also reviewed documents from these three agencies as well as relevant legislation. I have copies of this report for members of the Subcommittee and their staff.

Based on our review, we identified four common types of nonimmigrant visa fraud or fraud related to the use of visas:

    • A person uses fraudulent documents to obtain a legitimate visa. For example, an individual improperly obtains letterhead from a United States business and creates a letter supporting a false reason for traveling to this country. The State Department generally will issue a B-1 visa (temporary visitor for business). In such cases, the INS inspector has no reason to deny the individual entry into the United States.
    • A person obtains a fraudulent visa. An individual can attempt to use the passport and visa of a person who has similar looks and biographical characteristics (e.g., hair and eye color, age) or can purchase an altered document. Accomplished counterfeiters can alter the biographical data and digitized photographs on even the most secure visas in use today.
    • An individual may not meet the spirit or intent of the specific visa program. For example, GAO found that 85 percent of individuals requesting religious worker visas are already in the United States and are attempting to adjust status (e.g., from a student visa to a religious worker visa). Many of these individuals are requesting visas through unaffiliated, "storefront churches."
    • After arriving legitimately, an individual may overstay his/her visa and plan to reside in the United States "permanently."

We did not find comprehensive data related to nonimmigrant visa fraud. In fact, there is very little hard data available to gauge the magnitude of visa fraud, a point noted by GAO in its reports on this subject. For example, the State Department does not track visa refusal rates by visa type. Similarly, INS told us that individuals made 42,299 attempts to enter the United States between October 1992 through May 1993 with fraudulent or altered documents. While INS produced these statistics for an audit report, they are unable to update these figures because they do not maintain centralized statistics on fraudulent or altered documents. This lack of comprehensive statistics hinders the ability of the State Department and INS to appropriately respond to visa fraud.

Based on the information we collected, however, potentially the greatest risk to national security and illegal immigration appears to come from nonimmigrants visiting under the VWPP, a subject I will return to later in my remarks. With the extensive use of VWPP and without comprehensive systems to track or without aggressive efforts to identify nonimmigrant visa fraud, it is difficult to provide accurate risk assessments for the various visa classes.

That said, we offer an opinion in our in-house report of the relative risk for each visa type based on the information we reviewed. We also provide for each visa type a description of the visa, the maximum initial period of admission, the number of visas the State Department issued in FY 1996, the number of arrivals INS recorded in FY 1996, and additional information.

  1. OIG Role in Investigating Immigration Fraud

The OIG spends almost one-fourth of its Investigations Division resources investigating immigration document-related corruption in INS. During the past five years, 22 percent of all OIG investigations involved document fraud; this percentage is significantly higher for our field offices along the southwest border. A statistical breakdown follows:
 

Year

INS Fraud Cases Opened

Total Arrests

Employee Arrests

Contractor Arrests

Civilian Arrests

1994

105

68

19

0

49

1995

102

63

9

20

34

1996

109

55

7

0

48

1997

193

38

15

1

22

1998

150

26

7

0

19

Total

659

250

57

21

172

 

To assist the Subcommittee in its examination of this issue, I highlight several examples of investigations of visa fraud or other types of document fraud conducted by the OIG:

    • Between 1987 and 1995, four Korean nationals bribed a supervisory Immigration Adjudications Officer in the INS San Jose, CA, office to unlawfully adjust the status of aliens to permanent residence. At least 275 aliens, almost exclusively from Korea, initially entered the United States on nonimmigrant visas. The corrupt INS employee created false records in INS databases indicating that the aliens changed their status from "nonimmigrant" to "immigrant" (i.e., permanent resident). The INS officer admitted receiving a total of $450,000 in bribe payments from four Korean nationals who made at least a million dollars from this scheme. The former Immigration officer and the four Korean nationals have been indicted.
    • A former INS Officer-in-Charge in Hong Kong was arrested for trafficking in blank Honduran passports (i.e., containing no name, photograph, or biographic data) containing fraudulent U.S. nonimmigrant visas. The passports and nonimmigrant visas were apparently being sold in Hong Kong to Chinese nationals who would use them to enter the United States. The OIG investigated this case jointly with the Hong Kong Independent Commission Against Corruption.
    • In the Eastern District of New York, an INS immigration inspector assigned to JFK International Airport was arrested on charges of providing altered U. S. passports and other identity documents to illegal aliens. The inspector was videotaped accepting a total of $10,000 in bribes in exchange for identity packages that contained U.S. passports, INS Alien Registration Receipt Cards (Green Cards), and drivers’ licenses.

These investigations are essential to protect the integrity of the lawful immigration process and to help deter INS employees who might be susceptible to corruption. The experience and expertise of OIG investigators make this office uniquely suited to conduct these complex investigations.

  1. Update: Inspector General’s May 1997 Testimony

I would like to update the Subcommittee on actions taken by INS in response to the recommendation made in our report, Immigration and Naturalization Service Document Fraud Records Corrections, that formed the basis for my testimony before this panel in May 1997.

As you may recall, our inspection found that in successful document fraud investigations the government generally prosecutes the vendors of the documents, the middlemen who paid bribes, and any corrupt INS employees who accepted bribes. If the vendors and middlemen are illegal aliens, INS usually initiates deportation proceedings. What was less clear was what INS did with the aliens who obtained immigration documents by fraudulent means.

Our inspection found that INS took no action against these aliens. Not only did INS fail to prosecute or deport these aliens, it had no method of even flagging the names or alien numbers ("A-numbers") in INS’s record systems to alert INS officers who subsequently came into contact with these aliens. Consequently, these aliens were free to continue to reap benefits from an illegal scheme and even use one illegally obtained benefit to obtain additional benefits.

We pointed out the deterrent value of pursuing and deporting aliens identified through document fraud investigations while recognizing constraints on INS’s ability to do so. Short of deportation, we recommended that INS correct fraudulent database entries and develop a flagging system to alert INS personnel to alien participation in fraud schemes.

In its response to our report, INS agreed to develop a "fraud flagging system" and to begin working on the necessary enhancements to its automated systems. INS has since provided us with a copy of its "Flagging of Fraudulent Records in INS Automated Systems Operational Policy and Procedures" document and reported that the automated system has been implemented. Based on this information, we closed the recommendations in our Inspection report. This is the type of issue in which OIG follow-up work would be warranted; however, we have not yet done such work because of resource constraints.

  1. Visa Waiver Pilot Program

The OIG issued a report in March 1999 that examined the potential for fraud in the VWPP, a program that waives visa requirements for visitors from 26 countries who travel to the United States for business or pleasure. In FY 1997, 14.5 million visitors entered this country under the VWPP, representing 51 percent of all nonimmigrants admitted.

The VWPP allows aliens who might otherwise be inadmissible or who present law enforcement or security concerns to avoid the pre-screening that consular officers normally perform on visa applicants. All that is required is a passport from one of the 26 participating countries. Our review found that terrorists, criminals, smugglers, and others have attempted to enter the United States using stolen blank passports from a Visa Waiver country or by altering or counterfeiting these passports.

While the recommendations in our report will assist INS in reducing the risks of the VWPP, we recognize that many important issues related to the VWPP are beyond INS’s control. These include the State Department’s ability to nominate countries for the VWPP that INS considers problematic, when or whether participating countries will be required to implement "machine readable" passports that will facilitate the inspection process and are fraud resistant, and coordinating participating countries’ reporting of stolen passports. These are problems that may potentially compromise INS’s inspection process.

I understand that the Subcommittee may address this issue in detail next year when the VWPP program comes up for reauthorization. We stand ready to assist the Subcommittee in its deliberations.

  1. Nonimmigrant Visa Overstays

Finally, I wanted to mention a Special Investigation by my office released in March 1998 – "Bombs in Brooklyn: How the Two Illegal Aliens Arrested for Plotting to Bomb the New York Subway Entered and Remained in the United States" – that highlighted the threat that some non-immigrant overstays may be involved in terrorist activities. In this particular investigation, one of the two Palestinians arrested for allegedly planning to bomb the Brooklyn subway illegally remained in the United States after his visitor’s visa expired.

We found that because the Palestinian’s alleged purpose for traveling to the United States was solely to catch a connecting flight to Ecuador, he should not have received a visa that permitted him to remain in this country longer than the time needed to board a connecting flight. We recommended that the INS and the State Department more carefully consider when "transit without visa travel" is appropriate; in this particular case, the Consular Office did not even consider this status as an option.

As I testified at the Subcommittee’s March hearing on nonimmigrant overstays, our investigation discovered significant differences of understanding between INS and the State Department about various officials' roles in the visa process. Neither the immigration inspector at the port of entry nor the Consular Officer who issued the visa thought it was his or her role to verify that the Palestinian actually had a ticket to Ecuador or adequate funds for the trip. Neither thought that it was his or her responsibility to consider restricting the period of his stay to something less than the 29 days permitted under a "person in transit" or C-1 visa. We believe that this confusion over the appropriate role of INS and State Department officials needs to be addressed and clarified in the interests of controlling illegal immigration.

  1. Conclusion

Nonimmigrant visa fraud poses a threat to the orderly operation of our immigration system and both the State Department and Justice Department have vital roles to play in this process. As resources permit, the OIG will continue to conduct investigations, inspections, and audits that address some of the key vulnerabilities that exist in the system.

I would be pleased to answer any questions.