Ali had been anxiously eyeing the first days of the Biden administration, counting on the president’s promises of a new era in immigration to clear hurdles and help him get the visa he’s been seeking for years, as a reward for helping the U.S. war effort in Iraq.
But two days into the new administration, those hopes were dashed when the State Department announced an emergency pause on the special Iraqi refugee program.
Prosecutors had just revealed an almost unthinkable internal security breach: Two Homeland Security employees had been selling secret files from the Iraqi program for years, leaving security experts to figure out the damage, and the State Department to try to cauterize the wound.
The scam also left those like Ali — a pseudonym The Washington Times is using to protect his identity — worried about what bad guys might now know about him.
“I was literally counting the days of Trump’s presidency term and wishing Biden wins the election to resume the program so we can finally get our freedom and restore our normal life,” Ali told The Times in an email. “Now with this news I receive another shock to be added to my life’s tragedy.”
The criminal case has exposed staggering gaps in security at Homeland Security’s legal immigration agency, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
According to court documents, a Jordanian and a Russian working at U.S. embassies for USCIS used their jobs to gain access to the refugee database. They then sold information to an Iraqi man who’d failed in his own refugee claims, and was now living in Jordan.
Haitham Sad, who worked for USCIS at the embassy in Amman, pleaded guilty just days after the charges were announced. He said in his plea that he worked for the agency from 2007 through 2016 but managed to keep access to the database even after his termination, selling files to Aws Muwafaq Abduljabbar, the Iraqi ringleader of the fraud.
Along the way they recruited another USCIS employee, Olesya Krasilova, who worked at the U.S. embassy in Moscow and to whom the two men referred as the “female doctor.”
She and Mr. Sad stole hundreds of files, and were paid tens of thousands of dollars, Mr. Sad said. They also tried to recruit other USCIS employees,
“It’s very good money, for nothing,” Ms. Krasilova told one recruiting target in 2019.
Sources told The Times the goal was not, as Ali feared, to glean information that could be used to exact retribution against those who helped the U.S. Instead, the scammers were trying to exploit America’s generosity to pave a path for undeserving people.
Having access to the case files from successful applications gave the fraudsters a template to help others craft their own applications, cutting out information that had sunk others and highlighting the factors that had worked in previous cases.
“These guys were seeing applications and write-ups of those who were successfully able to establish eligibility, and basically take those narratives and repurpose them for others,” said Rob Law, the past chief of policy at USCIS. “People adopt similar stories, once someone is found to successfully navigate the system.”
Key to the scam was a security flaw in the refugee database that Mr. Sad and Ms. Krasilova were able to exploit. While the current refugee database system is known as WRAPS II, the older version, WRAPS I, was still operational and could access the same information, without leaving digital fingerprints.
It was only in 2019 that an update added an audit feature that allowed managers to look back to see who’d accessed files, and investigators were able to piece together the scam.
Top Republicans on the House’s Homeland Security and Foreign Affairs committees have demanded secret briefings on what went wrong, calling it a “sophisticated insider threat.”
“When employees of the United States Government are abusing their power to undermine the integrity of these critical programs for nefarious purposes, this represents a significant breach of public trust and erosion of homeland security,” said Rep. John Katko, the ranking homeland security Republican.
The two USCIS employees were what’s known in government-speak as foreign service nationals or locally-employed staff (FNS/LES), and were part of a program that used locals to help process refugee checks.
Even before the latest revelations, USCIS had been cutting its FSN/LES staff. The agency said it now has 19 such employees. The agency declined to talk more about the breach, citing the ongoing criminal investigation.
Mr. Law, now director of regulatory affairs and policy at the Center for Immigration Studies, said he expects more revelations about the extent of the fraud.
“What’s being currently reported as being uncovered is potentially just the beginning,” he said.
He also said the scam should be a caution to the Biden administration as it seeks to unwind former President Donald Trump’s strict vetting of refugees and other foreign arrivals.
Mr. Trump imposed the tougher rules after several striking cases of refugees accused of joining jihadist movements. Among them was Aws Mohammed Younis Al-Jayab, who just months after his arrival in the U.S. in 2012 began plotting to join Ansar Al-Islam in Syria.
“The Biden administration may want to really think twice about undoing everything that was done in this space, because there are bad actors out there,” said Mr. Law.
The Iraqi refugee program is one of two paths for Iraqis who helped with the U.S. war effort. The other is a special immigrant visa reserved specifically for those who performed translation duties.
Both programs are relatively small at this point.
Just 63 cases involving 161 people were resettled in the U.S. in fiscal 2020, which spanned Oct. 1, 2019, to Sept. 30, 2020. In the four months after through, through Jan. 31, another 38 people were admitted. Only one was from the special refugee program.
Ali was hoping to be one of them.
He said he worked as an interpreter for U.S. forces in 2005, but left after he saw too many colleagues assassinated and faced too many threats himself.
When the U.S. announced the special pathways, he was eager to apply. But one of the hurdles is having a senior U.S. military commander vouch for your services, and Ali said he spent years trying to track down an email for someone who could do so.
Once he did apply, he thought things were “moving well” before Mr. Trump’s ascension to the White House, which he thought derailed things again.
Mike Jabbar, a translator who arrived in the U.S. as a refugee in 2019, during the Trump years, said the problem wasn’t Mr. Trump, it was the way Congress wrote the program.
In the middle of the last decade, during the Obama years, the number of special visas was cut dramatically. Some lawmakers fought to restore them, but the lion’s share goes to those helping with the effort in Afghanistan, not Iraq, Mr. Jabbar said.
He also said fraud is rife in the program — including forged documentation claiming they helped the Defense Department.
“Believe me, it’s happened in the past,” he said. “People have immigrated from those countries to the U.S., they have never worked for the U.S. government but they somehow managed to come up with all this fake paperwork.”
Mr. Jabbar said it was frustrating to see family migration cases from Iraq getting approved while people he knew risked their lives for the U.S. were stuck waiting on refugee slots.
“Why does somebody who doesn’t know how to speak English get their visa approved because she fell in love with a dude online, and she’s going to the [United] States before me?” he wondered.