Homeland Security’s special visa program to grant legal status to victims of crime is plagued by fraud and mismanagement, according to an inspector general’s audit released this week that found the department doesn’t even know how many of the visas are issued.
The review cited evidence that some immigrants were faking crimes to get the visa, which is one of the few concrete ways an immigrant who is in the country illegally can get on a pathway to citizenship.
Known as the U visas, the program is supposed to help victims, giving them permission to remain in the U.S. and assist police in solving their crimes. Police are supposed to certify that someone was a victim and is helping the investigation, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services can then issue a visa.
But the inspector general found immigrants were forging police certifications or obtaining real certifications and altering them to try to advance their cases by making the crimes seem more serious.
USCIS doesn’t track fraud case outcomes, so it can’t say how many people who filed bogus applications were prosecuted. And the agency can’t say how much the victims actually help police, the audit found.
The inspector general said USCIS ignored repeated warnings over the last decade to fix the problem.
One 2018 internal review said the agency had “grave concerns” about any certification filed after 2016 because many police agencies, under threat of lawsuits, “just sign” certifications without actually checking what’s in them.
That same review also found police were “selling” bogus certifications.
Another internal review in 2020 looked at nearly 600 U visa cases and found in two-thirds, police had already completed their case by the time the victim sought certification, meaning the victim’s help was no longer needed. In some instances, the police weren’t even sure a crime had been committed but signed a certification anyway.
“Without addressing these issues, USCIS cannot ensure the U visa program is operating as intended, providing protection to victims of serious crimes and strengthening law enforcement’s ability to detect, investigate and prosecute serious crimes, such as torture, rape and domestic violence,” Inspector General Joseph V. Cuffari concluded.
USCIS Director Ur Jaddou fired back in a fervent 21-page reply to a draft of the report, saying the inspector general botched the audit with “basic legal errors” and a misunderstanding of the point of the U visa.
She said nearly 60% of U visa cases result in arrest, indictment or prosecution of a criminal.
Besides, she said, the audit treated the program as chiefly a means to help police, but U visas have a second, equally important purpose of helping victims of crime. Ms. Jaddou said immigrants should be able to get visas regardless of whether they are playing a direct active role in the investigation or prosecution of a crime.
That also creates a more open environment for immigrants to report crimes, she said.
“The U visa program is a critical tool that helps law enforcement detect, investigate, and prosecute serious crimes by providing protection to noncitizen crime victims who are important case witnesses,” the agency said in a statement this week.
In an earlier draft report the inspector general had concluded that USCIS “did not assist law enforcement,” but Mr. Cuffari said that was changed in response to Ms. Jaddou’s criticism.
He also acceded to Ms. Jaddou’s criticism that the program has dual intents, and he nixed one of his policy recommendations concerning that issue.
The U visa program was created by Congress in 2000. USCIS began issuing passes in 2008.
The program is limited to 10,000 visas a year, with thousands more family members allowed as derivatives. It draws many times more applications than the cap allows.
As of Sept. 30, there were nearly 285,000 pending U visa cases. At the rate USCIS is working right now, it would take 16 years just to clear that backlog, without accounting for new cases.
A U visa grants the holder a work permit, which is the golden ticket for immigrants who are in the country illegally. Not only does the visa allow them to avoid deportation but it gives them a legal right to work and access to some taxpayer benefits. That makes the program attractive — and a target for fraud.
A key vulnerability is that the program asks immigrants to get certifications from the police then submit them, rather than having the police send the certifications directly to Homeland Security. That creates opportunities for mischief.
Another problem is police signing off on certifications without really knowing whether a crime did occur.
Federal prosecutors in Minnesota in 2020 charged a woman with orchestrating a scheme to have immigrants report false crimes and corroborate each other’s stories to obtain U visas.
And in Indiana, a lawyer pleaded guilty in 2017 to visa fraud after authorities said he filed more than 200 bogus U visa cases, fabricating claims that the migrants had provided help to the U.S. attorney’s office. The lawyer charged the migrants about $3,000 each.
The inspector general, in this week’s report, found 10 instances where a U visa applicant either forged a law enforcement official’s signature or altered a document after it was signed.
But the most damning evidence came from within USCIS itself and the multiple internal reviews that found problems including “police officials selling fraudulent [certifications] with false police reports” or applications where people substituted pages from legitimate certifications into bogus applications.
“We have grave concerns about the reliability of the certification from 2016 on as the threat of lawsuits has forced many law enforcement agencies to just sign and not question the certification,” USCIS’ Center Fraud Detection Operations said in one internal report.
This week’s audit suggested five changes to USCIS’s handling of the U visa, including improved data collection, tracking the outcomes of fraud cases turned over to other authorities, maker life easier for those in the backlog, coming up with yardsticks to better measure the program’s success and implementing stiffer fraud controls. One concrete suggestion was to have police submit their crime certifications directly to USCIS.
Ms. Jaddou agreed with the recommendations about data collection, yardsticks and improving conditions for those in the backlog. USCIS has already moved on that last recommendation by making work authorization documents available earlier to people in the backlog.
But Ms. Jaddou rejected suggestions to do more to spot fraud and track fraud referrals.
She said the agency “already has a robust set of controls in place” to stop fraudulent documents. And she said it wasn’t worth the agency’s time to issue new regulations to allow police to submit certifications directly, given that she disputed the fraud findings themselves.