Though the ICE press release does not acknowledge it, federal investigators from that agency and the Department of Labor (DoL) have uncovered and corrected a huge H-1 problem that had been missed by both USCIS and DoL — for a decade.
The last two agencies, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Department of Labor, had allowed the issuance of more than 100 phony H-1B visas, mostly to people from the Philippines. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and a different arm of DoL cracked down on the operation only after it had been highly successful for years.
As often is the case, the operation showed some criminal creativity and yet received the most casual level of USCIS observation — not scrutiny, just routine review of the papers submitted to that agency and DoL.
What the conspirators (Lilia Tabafunda and Gregory Lawrence) did was simplicity itself. When paid $2,500 to $8,000 by aliens wanting legal status, they concocted H-1B applications in the name of the aliens, invented their qualifications (to fit known H-1B standards), and filed the applications in the name of genuine employers (often non-profits), primarily those known to use H-1B workers. The employers never knew anything about the applications.
And then the conspirators used their own office address (a small windowless space in a Los Angeles high-rise at 3699 Wilshire Blvd.) as the address of the alleged employer. Presumably they paid the appropriate fees on behalf of their illegal alien clients.
Seeing that the applications appeared to be in order, the fees were paid, and that they were apparently filed by reputable-sounding organizations, like Barlow Respiratory Hospital, City of Hope, and the Boy Scouts of America, DoL and USCIS approved the papers before them and this led to the issuance of visas for the previously illegal aliens.
No one in the government, apparently, thought to run the mailing address through agencies' computers to see if the addresses were being used more often than one might expect. In the case of the Boy Scouts, no one in the government asked if the organization had a full-time Sea Scouts executive position open in Los Angeles and needed to recruit such a person from overseas. (The Boy Scouts, the investigators subsequently found, never hires nonimmigrants for any position.)
With a certain amount of self-assurance, Ms. Tabafunda, after the investigation had begun and after she had been told to stay in the country, sought to board a cruise ship headed to Mexico and was stopped in the process. She is now out on $50,000 bail.
All of this is significant for three policy-related reasons:
- A large, long-running plot like this one, complete with the office address vulnerability, should have been noticed by USCIS and DoL adjudicators long, long ago.
- Breaking such a case, and putting together the charges is a labor-intensive activity and is expensive to the government; the press release says that the investigation started five years ago, and the highly detailed indictment runs to 83 pages. (Was the government engaging in overkill here? Did they need that many examples of criminal behavior to shut down this operation?)
- While it is important to break up such activities, the real problem of the H-1B program is that legitimate employers use it extensively (and legally) to hire aliens to work at substandard wages, and thus deny jobs to legal residents of the United States. The non-criminal use of this program is much harder on American workers than the occasional criminal use of it.
Users of PACER, the federal courts' electronic records system, can see the indictment at case 2:12-mj-02387-DUTY document 1 in the files for the Central District of California.
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