Refugee fraud is “easy to commit” and much tougher to detect, Homeland Security officials acknowledged in an internal memo made public by members of Congress Thursday that challenges the department’s own assurances as it seeks to increase the number of refugees from dangerous countries.
The U.S. has relaxed requirements for refugees to prove they are who they say they are, and at times may rely solely on testimony. That makes it easier for bogus applicants to conspire to get approved, according to the department memo, which was obtained by the House Judiciary and Oversight committees.
“Refugee fraud is easy to commit, yet not easy to investigate,” the undated memo says.
The memo said there are clear instances where “bad actors … have exploited this program,” gaining a foothold in the U.S. through bogus refugee claims.
The revelation comes just a week after the administration said it was boosting the number of refugees it wants to accept next year to 110,000, up from 85,000 this year. Officials also said they’ll take more Syrians than the 12,000 they’ve accepted so far this year — and they are on pace to resettle as many as 30,000 in 2017.
“The president’s decision to increase overall refugee resettlement — and specifically that of Syrian refugees — ignores warnings from his own national security officials that Syrians cannot be adequately vetted to ensure terrorists are not admitted. Revelations about fraud, security gaps, and lack of oversight have demonstrated that the program is creating national security risks,” Reps. Jason Chaffetz and Bob Goodlatte said in a letter to Homeland Security on Thursday.
“I have never seen this document before,” ICE Director Sarah Saldana said when shown the memo by Mr. Chaffetz at a hearing Thursday.
The refugee system has always been tricky. Applicants have often quickly fled dangerous conditions and don’t have identity documents with them. They also aren’t being sponsored by someone else, lacking the business or family relationships that help officers in other immigration cases.
Administration officials say they put refugee applicants through the strictest screening of any category of migrants, and said their officers are trained to spot fraud in would-be refugees’ stories.
Mr. Goodlatte, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, had Ms. Saldana before his panel Thursday to testify on her agency’s handling of a number of thorny issues.
She said Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson is getting ready to punish countries that refuse to take back their illegal immigrants, with the first target being Gambia.
Federal law says that when countries refuse to take back their deportees, the Homeland Security secretary is to notify the State Department, which will then refuse to issue visas to that country. The Obama administration and, before it, the Bush administration, have been reluctant to use that power, saying it could disrupt diplomatic relations.
But high-profile crimes, including the slaying last year of a young Connecticut woman at the hands of someone whom Haiti refused to repatriate, have forced the administration’s hand.
Nearly two dozen countries are deemed recalcitrant, including Cuba and China, which are among the worst offenders in refusing their citizens. Ms. Saldana said some of those other countries could follow, but Gambia is the first target.
Ms. Saldana also threw cold water on advocates’ hopes of forcing Homeland Security to shutter its private detention centers that hold illegal immigrants.
The director said her agency would be hard-pressed to do its job because it relies almost entirely on privately owned facilities. If they were to stop using them, the federal government would have to build its own prisons and hire guards to maintain the 34,000 beds ICE is required to have on the average night.
“It would pretty much turn our system upside down,” she told the Judiciary Committee.
The Justice Department earlier this summer said the federal Bureau of Prisons will curtail its reliance on private prisons, saying they don’t do well at rehabilitation for long-term criminals.
ICE, however, says its mission is not about rehabilitation. When it detains immigrants, the purpose is to hold them for quick deportation — and they only stay in custody for short periods of time.