Abuses of the Diversity Visa Program Hidden in ICE Press Release

By David North on September 22, 2010

Publicists working for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have carefully hidden the central role of the Diversity Visa program (the visa lottery) in an extensive and brutal forced labor case involving young women from Africa.

The Diversity Visa program brings 50,000 people to the U.S. every year; people with no connections to the U.S., people without either needed skills, or refugee status, or money to invest; people who have simply won a free government lottery. For more on this program see this blog.

The Diversity Visa program is a highly criticized and when it came up on the floor of the House of Representatives a few years ago it was soundly defeated, but the Senate did not act, so the attempted repeal did not pass.

The ICE people working on the forced labor story must have figured that the Diversity Visa program did not need another black eye, so they shaped their writing accordingly.

Their press release told a horrific story and was headlined "Togolese woman sentenced to 27 years in prison for forced labor of young West African women: Defendant also ordered to pay victims $3.9 million in missed wages."

ICE agents in Newark, N.J., had uncovered the plot run by the woman and her family, which caused West African women to work long hours with no pay braiding hair for customers; the women were punished, often physically, if they asked for money or complained. They were forbidden to talk to other people, and were virtually imprisoned.

What the press release did not say, but what court records reveal, is that the abusive system relied primarily, if not exclusively, on the Diversity Visa program in the recruitment of the victims. (Users of the federal courts electronic records system, PACER, can read the complaint and other documents here.)

This is the way that the ICE publicists hid any description of the Diversity Visa program: they said that the ringleader "would seek out individuals with a type of visa which would allow the holders to bring spouses or children with them into the country..."

The ICE writers are immigration professionals and should know that most types of immigration visas for principals "allow the holders to bring spouses or children with them" so the description is not very helpful.

What ICE also did not say is that Diversity Program is the best possible candidate of any immigration program for this kind of abuse. This is the case because many people winning the visa lottery are neither expecting to win, nor are financially prepared to make use of it. Once they win it they find that they must pay substantial fees to the U.S. government, must pay their own airfares, and will be totally on their own financially in a strange land should they accept the visa.

The ringleader, Akouavi Kpade Afolabi, formerly from the Republic of Togo, knew how the Diversity Program worked, and how it could be abused. She found people in Africa who had won the lottery and could not afford to make use of it. She then offered to pay their fees and airfare if she could get them to claim various young women as their children or stepchildren who could get immigrant visas along with the lottery winner. Meanwhile, she was telling the victims that she could obtain green cards for them in America, if they went along with the scheme.

She coached everyone involved to say the right (i.e., fraudulent) things when they went to an American embassy, seeking the visas for Diversity Program dependents.

Once the "stepchildren" arrived in the New Jersey area, they never saw their "stepfather" again and were forced into virtual slavery in the hair braiding shops. Since the victims had participated in immigration fraud, Ms. Afolabi was able to use that fact to keep them silent.

Fortunately the ICE agents writing (or contributing to) the indictments were honest about the crucial role played in this grim story by the Diversity Visa program, as their publicist colleagues were not.