Monday, March 6, 2006

A draft government report shows the agency that would oversee any future guest-worker program doesn’t have a handle on fraud, doesn’t do enough to deter it, and won’t have a fraud-management system in place until 2011 — years after its proponents want a program to start.

A copy of the draft, obtained by The Washington Times, says U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has looked at the prevalence of fraud in just a few of the types of visas it now issues and doesn’t give adjudicators the time or tools to detect fraud or refer it to authorities for prosecution.

The report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said that USCIS can’t tell the extent of immigration benefit fraud, but “it is a serious problem.”

USCIS is part of the Department of Homeland Security and is in charge of adjudicating immigration benefits such as citizenship and permanent residence.

The report shows an agency caught between competing priorities of fast service and taking the time to make a correct judgment. With a backlog of applications, the speedy decisions seem to be winning.

“Adjudicators we spoke with said that management’s focused attention on reducing the backlog placed additional pressure on them to process applications faster, thereby increasing the risk of making incorrect decisions, including approval of potentially fraudulent applications,” the GAO said.

Of the fraud assessments USCIS has done, GAO found a 30 percent fraud rate among religious worker applications and “the assessment also uncovered one case where law enforcement had identified an applicant as a suspected terrorist.”

The report comes as Congress is debating whether to create a guest-worker program and whether to allow illegal aliens to participate in it. President Bush requested $247 million in his budget this year for USCIS to begin planning for a guest-worker program.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and one of those who requested the report, wouldn’t talk about specifics until it is released, but he told a Judiciary Committee meeting last week that senators would “be shocked if you learned about the internal fraud and abuse at the Citizenship and Immigration Service.”

Mr. Grassley said from what he’s seen, it’s “unrealistic” to expect USCIS to administer a guest-worker program properly.

“Officials are being bribed. Visas are being given away. Green cards are being sold,” he said.

Angelica Alfonso, a spokeswoman for the agency, said the report “does not fully portray how the Department of Homeland Security has been addressing anti-fraud since its inception.”

“Our top priority at USCIS continues to be preserving the integrity of the immigration system in this country, and USCIS is committed to creating an effective anti-fraud program,” she said.

“To this end, USCIS has established a joint benefit fraud strategy with [Immigration and Customs Enforcement], performs checks in all available enforcement systems, and has implemented a strategy for conducting benefit fraud assessments,” she said.

The report also says neither USCIS nor Immigration and Customs Enforcement, one of the law-enforcement arms of the immigration services, regularly penalize those who file fraudulent applications. Thus, there is no risk to filing fraudulently and aliens or businesses seeking to employ them can keep trying until they succeed.

The law allows both administrative and criminal penalties for fraud.

According to the report, USCIS couldn’t even say how many fraud cases it had referred to ICE, but the GAO said its study “indicates that most immigration fraud is not criminally prosecuted.”

USCIS officials told investigators fraud is time-consuming to prove, so they usually try to find other reasons to deny an application. But without proving fraud, nothing bars the person from trying again.

Rosemary Jenks, director of government affairs at Numbers USA, which wants strict immigration limits, said that’s a big vulnerability.

“As long as there’s no prosecution or no penalty, the alien is free to apply again and again and again until he gets what he’s looking for, so there’s no reason not to play the odds if the odds are so tiny that he’s going to get in trouble,” she said.

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