A special program giving Iraqi refugees direct access to the U.S. remains shut down a year after authorities revealed a massive fraud ring operating inside the government, and new court documents are shedding light on just how bad the situation was.
Aws Abduljabbar, an Iraqi man who had been living in Jordan, pleaded guilty last week to running the fraud ring. He admitted that he paid two Homeland Security Department employees to steal files from the government’s refugee database. He then used those files to coach would-be refugees on how to rewrite their cases to make them more sympathetic and more likely to win approval, prosecutors said.
The scam likely touched thousands of cases over eight years or so and forced the State Department in January 2021 to suspend the P-2 Iraqi refugee program, as it’s known. What was originally supposed to be a 90-day pause has stretched to more than a year as the Biden administration tries to cauterize the wound.
In the meantime, legitimate refugee candidates likely have been stranded.
It wasn’t just the refugee program that Abduljabbar was scamming.
As they were building the case against him, investigators discovered Abduljabbar was also orchestrating a marriage fraud operation, a sort of backup plan for those who failed to get into the U.S. as a refugee or some other way. Agents said in court documents that the operation charged tens of thousands of dollars to arrange fake relationships for Iraqis and Jordanians to give them a path to the U.S.
Abduljabbar was running another immigration scam that bought bogus Guatemalan passports for Iraqis to try to cheat their way into the U.S.
The refugee scam, which he said in his plea deal he ran with at least two accomplices, highlights the potential danger lurking in the Biden administration’s Afghanistan airlift, which brought 76,000 evacuees to the U.S. without full checks.
“You can’t rely on the legitimacy of what is being presented, and if you do not take the time to sort things out, you, in a worst-case scenario, allow in a terrorist. In a bad situation, you give out an immigration benefit to someone who is ineligible for it,” said Rob Law, who ran the office of policy and strategy at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Trump administration.
That bad scenario is what looks to have happened in the Iraqi refugee program with Abduljabbar, 43, who found a way to access secret files detailing the inner workings of hundreds of cases.
According to his plea, the operation continued for years.
He said he paid a Jordanian man who worked for USCIS at the U.S. Embassy in Amman to pore over files in the agency’s refugee system and pull out cases and details of Iraqis. That man’s time at USCIS ended in 2016, but he managed to get into the computer system remotely, and illegally, for months afterward.
By then, the man had recruited another henchman for Abduljabbar — a Russian woman who worked at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow who pulled the files for them.
From 2016 to 2019, the Russian woman stole access into at least 591 cases involving Iraqis applying for the P-2 program. She sent hundreds of screenshots and documents to Abduljabbar so he could keep tabs on those cases.
That knowledge helped him coach Iraqis on how to shape their applications. He provided inside information on what questions might be asked in interviews and what stories worked and what didn’t.
“As a result, the State Department, DHS and other agencies will spend millions of dollars to investigate and mitigate the damage,” prosecutors and Abduljabbar said in the statement of facts supporting his plea deal. “Among other tasks, this continuing effort involves the identification of [refugee] cases affected by the scheme, review of all cases to identify fraud and/or previously unidentified security risks, and an array of subsequent remedial steps.”
Reuters reported last summer that authorities suspect the fraud scheme tainted about 4,000 refugee cases. More than 500 won their cases and were admitted to the U.S.
Reuters said investigators found no connections to terrorism in the cases. Still, the Justice Department, announcing the guilty plea last week, said the fraud ring was a risk “to public safety and national security” and potentially blocked legitimate refugees whose lives were in danger.
USCIS declined to comment on the matter.
The State Department said it couldn’t comment on the case against Abduljabbar and the other two people, but it confirmed that the P-2 program is still shut down.
“We continue working as quickly as possible to complete our review and implement any additional safeguards to resume processing as soon as practical,” the department said in a statement to The Times.
The department said refugee applicants “undergo rigorous security screening and vetting.”
“In the admission of refugees to the United States, the safety and security of the American people is our top priority,” the department said.
Yet hiccups in the program are piling up.
Mr. Law said the fact that foreigners working for USCIS were given such extensive access to sensitive systems exposed a serious flaw in the agency’s approach.
The government has vowed “accountability” for those found to have engaged in fraud, but Mr. Law was skeptical.
“The cynic in me sees the Biden administration really has no desire to vet and screen,” he said. “My concern is that it’s one of those things where if you were a beneficiary of this fraud, you’re going to keep it. There’s not going to be an effort to go back and claw it back.”
The P-2 program was supposed to reward people in danger because they assisted with American efforts surrounding the war in Iraq.
Refugees accepted by the U.S. generally have fled their home countries, fear returning and are referred to the U.S. by the United Nations Refugee Agency. But the P-2 program, also known as “direct access,” allows people to apply from their home countries without undergoing U.N. vetting.
In August, the State Department announced that Afghans who assisted the U.S. effort in their country also would be eligible for speedy refugee processing.
The Iraqi fraud experience made many experts worry about the expansion for Afghans.
The vetting process is supposed to be long and involve whatever checks the government can make, Mr. Law said.
Short-circuiting those checks — such as bringing folks to the U.S. without undergoing interviews, as happened in the cases of most of the Afghan evacuees — is one way to let in people who didn’t earn refugee status or who might be bad actors.
Court documents indicate that some people Abduljabbar was trying to help were blocked from the P-2 refugee program, but he had other scams to help them reach the U.S.
One was working with corrupt Guatemalan officials to buy bogus passports for Iraqis. The Iraqis would use the passports to get into Mexico and head for the U.S. border. The fraudsters charged about $10,000 for the fabricated documents, investigators said in court documents.
Abduljabbar was also involved in a marriage fraud ring, which tried to arrange bogus relationships between people from Iraq or Jordan and U.S. citizens.
Court documents show that agents tipped to those two scams as a result of sniffing out the original refugee fraud.
Agents monitoring Abduljabbar’s communications from jail even heard details of his attempt to secure a fake marriage for himself, despite having a wife in Jordan. The plan was to secure a “divorce document temporarily issued in Baghdad” and then proceed with a bogus marriage to an American, according to court documents.
As part of the guilty plea agreement, government attorneys agreed not to pursue the case against Abduljabbar in those other scams, which are being prosecuted in federal court in California against his suspected conspirators.