In Fighting Visa Fraud, Nothing Beats the Personal Touch

Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times, February 7, 2010

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Increased site visits like the recent trip to El Monte are a key tool in the federal government’s newly aggressive fight against immigration fraud. The visits are to expand to as many as 25,000 this fiscal year from 5,000 last year, according to Alejandro N. Mayorkas, director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Site visits are required for each application for a religious worker visa after a 2006 internal review found a 33% fraud rate. The expanded site visit program will focus on applicants for a skilled worker visa known as H-1B. Applications in that visa category were found to have a 21% rate of fraud or technical violations in a 2008 internal review.

Investigators have found applicants for skilled worker or managerial visas working at convenience stores, fast-food restaurants and video shops. They have discovered bogus firms, as in the El Monte case. They have documented exaggerated claims, such as an Armenian flower shop in Glendale that asserted the need to bring in a foreign worker as a full-time accountant when the business, on inspection, turned out to be far too small to need one.

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Some fear, however, that the aggressive anti-fraud effort is having unintended negative consequences. Robert P. Deasy, a spokesman for the American Immigration Lawyers Assn., said many of his organization’s business clients are complaining that denial rates for visa applications appear to be on the rise even for legitimate applicants.

Although immigration officials could not provide overall denial rates, a government study last year found they doubled for religious worker petitions, to 60% in fiscal year 2007 from 31% the previous year.

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The federal push on immigration fraud began after a 2002 study by government auditors found that immigration fraud was “pervasive and significant” and that immigration officials were poorly equipped to fight it.

The report expressed alarm that criminals were increasingly using the application process to gain legal entry into the U.S. for narcotics trafficking, terrorism and other illegal activity.

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In the last six years, the number of anti-fraud officers nationwide has grown from 100 to 600. Offices have been established in Mexico and Germany, with others being considered for the Philippines, China, India and South Korea.

The number of fraud leads investigated has jumped from 2,620 in 2005 to 31,827 last year.

And the fraud office’s budget has swelled to $95 million in fiscal year 2009, up from about $20 million five years earlier. To help fund the operations, Congress approved a $500 “fraud fee” on certain business visa applications, raising millions of dollars a year for investigators in the Homeland Security, Labor and State departments.

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