Posted on September 2, 2021

Refugee Resettlement Fraud in the Program for U.S.-Affiliated Iraqis

Nayla Rush, Center for Immigration Studies, August 19, 2021

News about cases of fraud within the Iraqi refugee program was reported by Reuters in June. According to the news outlet, U.S. authorities are investigating some 4,000 Iraqis suspected of filing fraudulent applications for refugee resettlement in the United States and are re-assessing cases involving more than 104,000 others. Over 500 Iraqis already admitted as refugees could be deported or stripped of their U.S citizenship. This probe described by Reuters as “one of the biggest into refugee program fraud in recent history” is raising doubts about giving similar access to the United States to Afghan nationals in the wake of the collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.

Thousands of Iraqi and Afghan nationals who worked as translators or interpreters or who were employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government in Iraq and Afghanistan were admitted into the United States under the “Special Immigrant Visas” (SIV) program. In response to concerns about the dangers Iraqis and Afghans who assisted the U.S. government faced in their own countries, a series of legislative provisions enacted by Congress since 2006 allowed Iraqi and Afghan nationals to come to the United States with an SIV and become U.S. lawful permanent residents (LPRs, more commonly known as green card holders). Iraqi and Afghan “special immigrants” are eligible “for the same resettlement assistance and federal public benefits as refugees”.

There are two special immigrant classifications for nationals of Iraq and Afghanistan. One is for individuals who worked as translators or interpreters for the U.S. military or under chief of mission authority (i.e., directly for the embassy), and the other for those employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government in Iraq or in Afghanistan.

The “Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) program for Iraqi nationals who were employed by/on behalf of the U.S. government” stopped accepting applications as of September 30, 2014, while the “Special Immigrant Visas for Afghan nationals who were employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government” continues to offer protection to Afghan allies. The “Special Immigrant Visas for Iraqi and Afghan Translators/Interpreters” remain active.

With the termination of the SIV Allies program for Iraqi nationals, those (other than translators/interpreters) who face security threats because of their direct or indirect collaboration with the U.S. government could still, until recently, use the Direct Access Program (or P-2 category) available under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for an opportunity to resettle in the United States. This Direct Access Program was suspended indefinitely at the beginning of 2021.

U.S. officials announced in January the 90-day suspension of the Direct Access Program for U.S.-Affiliated Iraqis to address fraud vulnerabilities:

As the result of a joint investigation by the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service and the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General, the Department of Justice is prosecuting individuals for stealing U.S. government records from the Department of State’s Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System to take advantage of the Direct Access Program for U.S.-Affiliated Iraqis. This scheme specifically targeted applications for direct access to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program made possible by the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act of 2007.

According to Reuters, the suspension, which “followed the unsealing of an indictment accusing three foreign nationals of fraud, records theft and money laundering”, was extended indefinitely in April by the State Department. Despite this suspension and the ongoing fraud investigation, similar protection access was recently offered to Afghan nationals.

The Department of State announced on August 2 a Priority 2 designation granting U.S. Refugee Admissions Program access for certain Afghan nationals and their family members (spouse and children of any age, whether married or unmarried) who could face risks following the withdrawal of U.S. troops but who are not eligible for a Special Immigrant Visa.

This report offers an overview of the Special Immigrant Visa programs available to Iraqi and Afghan nationals who were employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government (the Allies program, distinct from the SIV program for translators); and the “Direct Access Program-P-2 Category” under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for U.S.-Affiliated Iraqis and recently added Afghans. It calculates the number of Iraqi admissions under the SIV and the Refugee Resettlement Programs. It describes fraud vulnerabilities in the UN refugee agency and other Resettlement Support Centers the U.S. State Department relies on for processing and screening purposes of potential refugees. It elaborates on President Biden’s order of a complete review of the Allies SIV program to implement anti-fraud measures and ensure program integrity; and it also looks at identifying whether additional populations (not just Iraqis and Afghans) should be covered under this program and evaluates whether to seek legislation to create SIV programs regardless of nationality. It considers, as well, ways to ease application requirements and expedite procedures. The review report is supposed to be released this month, hence this final commentary: Why not wait for the report’s recommendations before applying a similar protection to U.S.-Affiliated Afghan nationals as U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan?

Findings. A number of the report’s important takeaways are highlighted here:

  • The Allies SIV program for Iraqis was terminated, while the Afghan program continues to accept new applications.
  • The P-2 Program for Iraqis has been suspended indefinitely by the Biden administration to address fraud vulnerabilities.
  • Fraud is not uncommon within the refugee resettlement program. In fact, resettlement is a “target for abuse” by the UN refugee agency’s own admission, and resettlement places are “valuable commodities, particularly in countries with acute poverty”.
  • The Department of State recently announced a P-2 program for certain Afghan nationals and their family members.
  • Some 100,000 Iraqis admitted under the P-2 program are being reassessed for possible fraudulent applications, most of whom were admitted under the Obama administration.
  • State Department-funded Resettlement Support Centers that act as overseas processing entities for Iraqis who apply directly for consideration in the P2 Program are vulnerable to fraud (including staff fraud), according to Government Accountability Office (GAO) reviews.
  • The Obama administration expanded the available processing locations of Resettlement Support Centers (RSCs) to countries that had, for most, a high corruption index according to Transparency International.
  • The Trump administration was criticized for lowering refugee admissions, “turning its back on Iraqis who risked their lives working for U.S. entities” and was urged to admit more Iraqi nationals under the P-2 program.
  • President Biden ordered a complete review of the “Special Immigrant Visas for Iraqi and Afghan Allies”. The review report, aimed at “implementing anti-fraud measures to ensure program integrity”, should be released in August.
  • The review will also address situations where an applicant is unable to provide proof of employment and will provide for other forms of verification and revise requirements to facilitate the ability of applicants to demonstrate the existence of a qualifying contract with the United States government.
  • This review aims at identifying as well whether “additional populations” (other than Iraqis and Afghans) should be covered under this SIV program. It is to evaluate whether “it would be appropriate to seek legislation that would create SIV programs for individuals, regardless of nationality, for those who assisted the United States government in conflict areas.”
  • The Priority 2 designation granting refugee resettlement access for certain Afghan nationals before the release of the review report of the SIV program for Iraqi and Afghans could be a repeat scenario of fraudulent claims filed by Iraqi nationals under a similar designation.
  • Democratic lawmakers introduced legislation to increase the number of Special Immigrant Visas available to certain Afghans and ease eligibility requirements.
  • Despite the recent developments in Afghanistan, are these the right measures to take? Won’t the chaos on the ground risk generating more fraud within programs (SIV and P-2) that are already under investigation for fraud?