- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Four years after busting a massive asylum fraud ring in New York, federal agents still haven’t revoked any of the 3,700 potentially bogus cases handled by the fraudsters, raising questions about just how serious the Obama administration is in rooting out immigration scams.

Chinese immigrants, often already living in the U.S. illegally, paid big money to have lawyers, translators and even church officials concoct stories of forced abortions or persecution back home because of their Christian beliefs, bamboozling officials into granting asylum.

The FBI shut down the fraud ring in 2012, and many of the attorneys and their assistants have since pleaded guilty to their roles — but all of those who were approved have not had their cases revisited, much less had their asylum revoked, the administration confirmed to Congress this summer.

“Despite this clear knowledge of massive asylum fraud, DOJ’s refusal to reopen any of those cases demonstrates its effective endorsement of a tainted system that undermines the integrity of the asylum process and willfully ignores a significant national security vulnerability,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican who uncovered the administration’s lack of action.

Asylum is supposed to be granted to those already in the U.S. who prove they have reason to fear returning to their home countries, either because they have been persecuted or face real threats of persecution. Refugees, meanwhile, are those outside the country who apply to enter based on evidence of persecution.

In recent years, thousands of people from Central America have jumped the border illegally and demanded asylum because of poverty and gang violence back home.

Critics say the border surge has created more chances for fraud and that the Homeland Security Department and the Justice Department, both of which have roles in granting asylum, are not doing enough to stop it.

The Government Accountability Office, the chief federal watchdog, released a devastating report in December saying Homeland Security still requires paper-based applications that make it tough to detect fraud; neither Homeland Security nor Justice is set up to consistently look for fraud; and neither department has conducted a risk assessment to spot vulnerabilities.

Criminals, however, have spotted those vulnerabilities, and Mr. Goodlatte said as many as 70 percent of asylum applications show indications of fraud.

The New York City ring, which spanned a number of law offices, was so adept at concocting convincing but fake stories for Chinese immigrants that federal investigators dubbed their bust Operation Fiction Writer.

The fraudsters would forge documents, make up backstories and coach applicants on how to game the interviews with asylum officers. Investigators said applicants who claimed to have been forced to have abortions under China’s one-child policy were even told to watch Chinese soap operas portraying women in that situation as a way of studying how to act.

Asylum applicants also paid for translators who helped coach them on how to beat the system and accompanied them to the official interviews to provide translation — and would shape the applicants’ testimony by failing to translate any inconsistent details, according to federal prosecutors who pursued the criminal cases against the fraud ring.

One analyst told The New York Times during the time of the sting that most Chinese asylum cases in New York City were fraudulent.

Despite the mountain of evidence, none of the 3,709 asylum cases approved by the Executive Office for Immigration Review that was associated with the ring has been reopened.

Part of the problem is that responsibility is split among two departments and three agencies. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is in Homeland Security and handles legal immigration cases, can grant asylum on initial review. The Executive Office for Immigration Review, which is under the Justice Department, hears affirmative cases and appeals when USCIS doesn’t grant asylum. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is also in Homeland Security, is responsible for arguing those cases before the Executive Office for Immigration Review.

Officials in that office said they were aware of the Chinese fraud ring and even helped the FBI and other federal investigators put together the criminal case. But the immigration review office said it won’t reopen those cases on its own and needs to wait for ICE to file a petition.

“DHS has the burden to provide evidence to demonstrate that fraud has occurred,” Juan P. Osuna, director of the Executive Office for Immigration Review, told Mr. Goodlatte in written answers to questions this summer.

A congressional official disputed that, saying immigration judges at the review office can reopen cases on their own motions.

The review office said its judges can report suspicions to the agency’s Fraud Abuse and Prevention Program, but that department has only a single permanent lawyer and several other part-time or temporary employees to handle hundreds of thousands of cases. A full-time investigator is coming “soon,” the Executive Office for Immigration Review says.

Mr. Goodlatte said the lack of resources is a sign that the government is more intent on approving as many immigration applications as possible.

ICE officials say they do pay attention to fraud but generally focus on the networks responsible for sham applications. Once investigators complete their cases, they share their findings with USCIS and decide whether they want to try to revoke asylum.

“Regarding Operation Fiction Writer, ICE is continuing to work with USCIS to review cases for possible motions to reopen,” an official said.

In the meantime, the number of Chinese who are seeking asylum has plummeted since the bust, from 10,481 petitions in 2011 to 1,757 in 2015.

Still, the Executive Office for Immigration Review has built up a large backlog and is working its way through the cases.

Some 21,260 Chinese were granted asylum during those five years, and just 6,109 petitions were rejected.

Meanwhile, the review office’s fraud unit opened just three asylum fraud investigations in 2013 and only seven in 2014 — the two years immediately after the New York City bust.

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