Identifying Fraud in the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program

Agencies can do more

By Andrew R. Arthur on November 3, 2017

My colleague Nayla Rush has written extensively on the vagaries and defects in the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). For those interested in the flaws and potential vulnerabilities in that system, I strongly recommend bookmarking her work, which regularly provides up-to-date, in-depth analysis of that program.

In reviewing the written testimony of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) before the House Committee on the Judiciary's Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security for that subcommittee's October 26, 2017, hearing on "Oversight of the United States Refugee Admissions Program", however, I was struck by a vulnerability relating to fraud risk management that I have discussed before in the asylum context. Given the similarities between this issue in the refugee and the asylum contexts, I wanted to draw special attention to it.

In my report on "Fraud in the 'Credible Fear' Process", I detailed GAO's findings in a December 2015 report captioned "Asylum: Additional Actions Needed to Assess and Address Fraud Risks". As GAO found in that report, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR):

[H]ave limited capabilities to detect asylum fraud. First, while both USCIS and EOIR have mechanisms to investigate fraud in individual applications, neither agency has assessed fraud risks across the asylum process, in accordance with leading practices for managing fraud risks. ... Without regular assessments of fraud risks, USCIS and EOIR lack reasonable assurance that they have implemented controls to mitigate those risks. Second, USCIS's capability to identify patterns of fraud across asylum applications is hindered because USCIS relies on a paper-based system for asylum applications and does not electronically capture some key information that could be used to detect fraud, such as the applicant's written statement. Asylum officers and Fraud Detection and National Security (FDNS) Directorate immigration officers told GAO that they can identify potential fraud by analyzing trends across asylum applications; however, they must rely on labor-intensive methods to do so. Identifying and implementing additional fraud detection tools could enable USCIS to detect fraud more effectively while using resources more efficiently. ... Developing asylum-specific guidance for fraud detection, in accordance with federal internal control standards, would better position FDNS officers to understand their roles and responsibilities in the asylum process.

GAO's October 26 testimony details a similar failure by USCIS and the Department of State (DOS) as relates to refugee applicant fraud. Both USCIS and DOS play significant roles in USRAP:

Specifically, State's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration coordinates and manages USRAP and makes decisions on which individuals around the world are eligible for resettlement as refugees in the United States. State coordinates with [the Department of Homeland Security] and other agencies in carrying out this responsibility. In particular, nine State-funded Resettlement Support Centers (RSC) that are operated by international and nongovernmental organizations and are located abroad with distinct geographic areas of responsibility communicate directly with applicants to process their applications, collect their information, and conduct in-person prescreening interviews. After such prescreening is complete, [USCIS] has responsibility for adjudicating applications from these individuals. In adjudicating such applications, USCIS officers are to conduct individual, in-person interviews with applicants overseas and use the results of these interviews in conjunction with other relevant information, such as the results of applicants' security checks, to determine whether USCIS will approve the applicants for resettlement in the United States as refugees.

GAO has previously found that: "There are ... questions as to whether USRAP is vulnerable to fraud because, for example, testimonial evidence alone, without corroboration, may be sufficient for refugee applicants to meet the burden of proof for establishing eligibility for resettlement in the United States." That office has underscored the importance of screening for such fraud:

Given the potential consequences that the outcomes of decisions on refugee applications can have on the safety and security of both vulnerable refugee populations and the United States, it is important that the U.S. government have an effective refugee screening process to allow for resettlement of qualified applicants while preventing persons with malicious intent from using USRAP to gain entry into the country.

In fact, ISIS has reportedly exploited the refugee crisis there to smuggle its fighters onto that continent. There is no reason to believe that it would not make similar efforts to exploit USRAP.

There are two main forms of fraud in USRAP: the making of false statements in support of a refugee application, and the submission of fraudulent documents. In its congressional testimony, GAO stated:

Although State and USCIS perform a number of fraud risk management activities and have responded to individual instances of applicant fraud, we found that these efforts do not position the agencies to assess fraud risks program-wide for USRAP or know if their controls are appropriately targeted to the areas of highest risk in the program. State and USCIS officials told us that each agency has discrete areas of responsibility in the refugee admissions process, and each agency's antifraud activities are largely directed at their portions of the process. Because the management of USRAP involves several agencies, without jointly and regularly assessing applicant fraud risks and determining the fraud risk tolerance of the entirety of USRAP, in accordance with leading practices, State and USCIS do not have comprehensive information on the inherent fraud risks that may affect the integrity of the refugee application process and therefore do not have reasonable assurance that State, USCIS, and other program partners have implemented controls to mitigate those risks. Moreover, regularly assessing applicant fraud risks program-wide could help State and USCIS ensure that fraud prevention and detection efforts across USRAP are targeted to those areas that are of highest risk, in accordance with the program's fraud risk tolerance. (Emphasis added.)

Because of the surreptitious nature of fraud, it is usually difficult to detect. This is all the more reason that USCIS and its respective partners in the asylum and refugee process, EOIR and DOS, work cooperatively to assess fraud risks.

In connection with that effort, all three should jointly undertake a study to assess the extent of fraud in the asylum and refugee processes. Specifically, USCIS, EOIR, and DOS should review a representative sample of cases involving aliens who have been granted asylum and refugee status and perform a forensic analysis of those cases to determine the factual validity of the claims therein. Such review should include in-country investigations, as well as interviews with successful applicants, their family members, and where possible, local officials in the countries of origin of those individuals.

In addition, all oral statements from applicants for asylum and refugee status, as well as all applications from those individuals, should be recorded electronically. This would enable investigators to identify trends across applications and search for the indicia of fraud, such as identical claims and language used by different applicants.

As with asylum applicants, adjudicators assessing refugee claims are often left with little more than the oral statements of the applicants, and perhaps a handful of non-self-authenticating documents. This renders USRAP particularly vulnerable to fraud. Given the importance of providing protection to those in legitimate fear of persecution, while protecting the American people from security risks, it is crucial that the agencies involved in USRAP utilize all of the tools at their disposal to identify and reject fraudulent claims. GAO has given USCIS and DOS a road map to follow in performing this task. It is up to the administration to ensure that they do so.