Another Look at the Blossoming Fraud Detection Capacities Within USCIS

By Dan Cadman on May 30, 2018

A few days ago the Center published my blog post, "Is USCIS Incrementally Recreating the INS?", in which I noted that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services was recruiting significant new numbers of immigration officers within the Fraud Detection and National Security (FDNS) Directorate.

I observed that, unable to routinely rely on the investigative cadre of agents within its sister Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), to accept its fraud referrals, USCIS was both creating its own corps to do so, and turning to other agencies more amenable to accepting referrals, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Since writing the blog post, two things have happened. Both are, in a way, further confirmation of my theory, although there is a decidedly negative aspect to one of them, as you will see.

First, I became aware of another indictment of alleged fraudsters gaming the EB-5 investor visa program administered by USCIS. I say "another" because discovery and enforcement actions against hucksters is becoming near commonplace. The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Louisiana in New Orleans announced the indictment of William B. Hungerford, Jr. and Timothy O. Milbrath for collecting millions, at $500,000 a pop, from foreign investors hoping to garner green cards for their investment; meanwhile Hungerford and Milbrath were diverting large portions of the money to fund lavish lifestyles. (Interestingly, neither defendant actually lives in New Orleans, which was designated a "targeted employment area" making it eligible for the program in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; they are latter day carpetbaggers who live in Maryland, and who clearly targeted New Orleans to clean up financially while doing nothing to put the city to rights. What's more, Milbrath is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and former White House military aide, according to the EB-5 Investments Marketplace website.)

To quote the indictment announcement, "U.S. Attorney Evans praised the work of the New Orleans Field Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in investigating this matter." Once again, we see no evidence of collaboration from ICE agents whose agency was created to investigate immigration and visa violations, as well as customs and trade violations. This is evidence of a colossal breakdown in communication and collaboration between these two agencies, for which the finger can only be pointed to those leaders in DHS, USCIS, and ICE who have permitted it to take place.

The second thing that arose was an interesting communication from someone who works as one of the FDNS immigration officers in a field location — of exactly the type I was discussing in my blog. This officer communicated in direct response to the blog, and emphatically on a confidential basis, fearing retribution. The officer advised me that despite the gains made and new positions coming on board, the agency is still mired in a "move-and-approve" mindset that infects even this portion of the organization, whose reason for existence is detecting and preventing fraud. Here are portions of that officer's detailed and compelling statement:

Your observation that FDNS has weak leadership is absolutely correct. It also has leadership that is inexperienced and unqualified to manage a fraud unit. The FDNS Branch Chief, [REDACTED], has never been a fraud officer and has not even completed basic fraud officer training [and] was promoted from ACD at the Texas Service Center to reward for implementing the "Fraud Backlog Reduction Project," which consisted of consolidating files into groupings categorized en masse rather than individually; preparing template Statement of Findings (SOF) to insert in categorized files to preclude and intentionally prevent a comprehensive and extended fraud review by an IO; devising an "e-SOF" program to allow ISO's to download a template SOF and insert it in the file thus eliminating the necessity of referring the file to the CFDO and thereby precluding review of the cases by a trained fraud officer (the program is credited with reducing the backlog by 50%); arbitrarily and capriciously declaring that national security (NS) cases are no longer a potential threat; imposing additional procedural conditions for acceptance of fraud referrals; declining referrals from ISO's on arbitrary technicalities. ... In just ten months, her project eliminated over 4,000 files in the fraud unit's backlog.

SCOPS [Service Center Operations] is driving the bus. FDNS SIOs [supervisory immigration officers] must advise SCOPS every Monday morning about the number of SOFs written the previous week. The mantra is file movement. IOs are required to write a specific number of SOFs each month to be rated as minimally acceptable. Large fraud investigations prevent an IO from meeting their assigned number and [have] a chilling affect upon probing deeper into cases. Fraud-found SOFs are treated the same as an inconclusive or fraud-not-found SOF even though those SOFs take less time to investigate and prepare. IOs that produce a high number of fraud-found SOFs or uncover large fraud schemes are pilloried and given low [annual performance] ratings ... reassigned to"one-off" fraud cases, saddled with tedious and time-consuming administrative duties, and are required to receive SIO permission (seldom granted) to request additional files to confirm a pattern of fraud. ...

I know of numerous incidents where the investigating IO was told by FDNS management not to contact ICE or the FBI for a particular case accepted by them or face disciplinary action because assisting law enforcement prevented the IO from writing SOFs and returning the files to the assembly line. ... FDNS management is populated with file movement evangelists who have crossed over from SCOPS and whose only interest is providing "customer" service.

Here is a portion of my response to the officer who showed the fortitude and took the time to write:

Thank you for writing to me, it was incredibly informative. ... Needless to say, your information greatly troubles me. Although I still think the multiplicity of FDNS positions being announced is a good thing, what you've told me suggests that there is still a long way to go in changing mindsets, particularly among those managers who came up and fared well in the "approve and move 'em fast" environment. I'm not really surprised at a certain level, of course — changing cultures in a bureaucracy is like changing directions in an aircraft carrier: slow and lumbering, because of the sheer size. ... Meanwhile, I encourage you not to give up hope. There are in fact many in positions of authority, both within DHS and USCIS, who do wish to see change effected.

I hope I am not imparting false hope.

The assertions being made are serious and deserve careful examination to determine whether, even as USCIS works to develop the infrastructure and capacity to properly examine and root out fraud, that capacity is simultaneously being undermined by those in positions of authority who still see immigration benefit adjudications as a simple numbers and stats game.