- The Washington Times - Monday, September 30, 2019

The government’s special program granting a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who are victims of domestic abuse is rife with fraud, according to a new watchdog audit Monday that suggests migrants have figured out how to game the system.

Fraud cases have quadrupled this year alone, the Government Accountability Office says, and now total about 13% of new applications from those who “self-petition” for protections under the Violence Against Women Act.

Claiming abuse can be a fast track to citizenship, and at the very least usually serves as a shield against deportation and leads to immediate work permission for immigrants who allege they were victims of domestic violence. Experts said those benefits make the program attractive for both real victims and fraudsters.

“There’s a very strong motivation to commit fraud in these cases,” said Matt O’Brien, a former immigration service official who is research director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform. “It sets up a situation where people have a very strong motivation to lie.”

The program was designed to offer a lifeline to spouses of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents who face abuse and who might fear coming forward because they’re either in the country illegally, or their status is tied to their spouse. If the petition is granted, the migrant earns independent legal status.

Migrants can also apply if their children are being abused.

The program is increasingly popular, with cases soaring from 7,360 in fiscal year 2014 to 12,801 in 2018. Through the first six months of fiscal year 2019, the program received about 6,400 petitions.

In those same six months U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services fielded 801 total fraud leads and cases, for a rate of about 13%.

In more than half of those cases, USCIS will likely find fraud, according to GAO. Fewer than 1 in 10 cases is actually cleared, while the other cases are deemed inconclusive.

“People have figured the program out,” Mr. O’Brien said, adding that fraudsters are counting on their cases being tough to check out, and that their allegations alone will be enough. “You have immigration courts and a USCIS who are inclined to believe what these folks say and aren’t inclined to look for fraud or other motivations to lie about what’s put in the petition.”

Rarely are fraudulent cases prosecuted.

But there have been some egregious ones that have made the cut.

Federal prosecutors in Vermont won an indictment in July against a New York immigration lawyer they said ran a VAWA fraud “mill,” filing more than 1,800 bogus applications covering more than 1,000 people from 2014 to 2018.

Authorities say the lawyer made up stories of abuse and filed false documents because he’d promised the migrants he could win them permission to work in the U.S. In some cases he didn’t even tell the immigrants he was claiming abuse, and had them sign the documents without seeing what they were agreeing to.

USCIS does have some anti-fraud controls and has worked to create an anti-fraud culture, the GAO said. But the levels of fraudulent cases are still high enough that the agency should figure out if there’s a systemic problem.

“Adjudicators we spoke to noted that fraud schemes continue to evolve, and that fraud schemes and tactics are becoming more sophisticated and thus more difficult to identify during adjudication of VAWA self-petitions,” the audit found.

USCIS has a fraud unit that is tasked with doing fraud benefit assessments on the full range of immigration programs, but current and former USCIS officials say that work was all but shut down during the Obama administration. Studies that were done were buried.

GAO investigators said USCIS could also use data analytics to try to spot troubling patterns in the cases.

Some tip-offs to fraud could be the repeated use of the same address or Social Security or alien identification numbers on applications. One address was used on 845 petitions, while five other addresses were used at least 50 times each, the audit found.

GAO also said USCIS could try to spot when the same lawyer appears on an inordinate number of applications — as happened in the criminal case filed in Vermont in July.

USCIS didn’t have a comment on the new study, but in its official response to the GAO Homeland Security’s liaison officer agreed with all three recommendations for better anti-fraud strategies and reviews.

“DHS remains committed to combatting immigration fraud in all benefit types, including self-petitions, to foster both an efficient and a secure immigration benefits system,” wrote Jim H. Crumpacker, the liaison.

Mr. O’Brien said data analytics can only go so far, giving a sense for where fraud might be. Actually spotting the fraud requires hiring and training people, he said.

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