What do you do with a middle-sized visa program when two different government agencies find that 30 to 33 percent of its applications are fraudulent?
If you are Congress, you renew it.
The program in question is the R-1 nonimmigrant religious workers program, which has been in existence since 1990. It is subject to periodic Congressional re-authorizations. When Congress last renewed it there were provisions for tightening its operation, but the official reviews of the program have been devastating.
But first a little history and a few admissions statistics.
Back in 1990, with the Catholic Church and some other entities saying they were having difficulty filing religious jobs, Congress created a program that allowed priests, ministers, nuns, monks, and "religious workers" to come to the U.S. for up to three years to work for religious organizations. They could extend their stay, and there were provisions for their conversion into permanent immigrant status.
It was well known at the time that the Church was having difficulty recruiting into its celibate employee categories but the legislation, for obvious reasons, had to be for all religious organizations. Further, Congress was not about to tell the Church that it would have fewer recruitment problems if the Church let priests, nuns, and monks have spouses.
As a matter of fact, the clergy (with one stunning exception), nuns, and monks have never been a problem in this program, the controversy largely relates to the "religious workers."
As is usually the case with a small, specialized visa program, it started modestly and has since grown by leaps and bounds. In fiscal year 1993, the first full year the program in operation, there were 4,460 admissions of R-1 workers, and 1,048 (R-2) admissions of their spouses and children, presumably related to religious workers, not to priests, nuns, and monks.
Ten years later, in FY 2003, those numbers were 20,272 in the prime category, and 6,105 in the secondary category. (Data are from the Yearbooks of Immigration Statistics.) In FY 2008, the latest year available, the admissions were 25,106 and 6,421.
Every year thousands of those R-1 and R-2 visa-holders, plus a few new arrivals with similar credentials, secure green cards. In FY 2008 there were 5,116 such grants, again a number growing over the years.
All of this activity would probably have remained unnoticed if it were not for the fact that the mastermind of the World Trade Center bombings (1993), Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, an imam, had arrived on an R-1 visa. Several other terrorists and would-be terrorists also used the visa. Oddly, the best summary of the use of R-1 visas by such people that I encountered was not in any of the three government reports described below, but in an open-borders website.
Subsequently three government agencies investigated the R-1 visas, and wrote reports full of damning information about the program.
The GAO Investigation, 1999
The first, in 1999, was by the General Accounting Office (GAO, now the Government Accountability Office). This was an exploratory, once-over-lightly sort of inquiry, with the GAO staff seeking to find out what INS and State already knew about fraud in the program, and what various religious organizations thought of it. Unlike the following two studies, there was no direct research on individual cases.
The first thing GAO found was that while the government agencies were worried about the program they had done nothing, in an organized way, to research the extent of it. Then GAO started talking to field people and found lots of problems.
In terms of the program design a would-be religious worker could file for a visa, without any forms being submitted directly by the church involved; other employment visa programs require direct filings by all employers. Further, there were no, or virtually no, attempts made by INS to find out if there was actually a church at the location listed – most applications were filed by churches or alleged churches.
The field people provided GAO with anecdotal evidence of widespread fraud: ". . . the Vermont Service Center [one of four in the nation] became suspicious when one organization which had filed about 100 petitions for immigrant visas the previous 2 years combined filed over 200 petitions the third year. The reviewers doubted that the organization [not named] could support so many full-time workers . . ."
"For example, in 1995, INS investigated a pastor who filed 450 immigrant religious worker petitions covering over 900 individuals, falsifying the number of years the aliens had been a member of the church . . ."
Then there were the "consular officials at the U.S. embassy in Suva, Fiji, [who] became suspicious of a church that filed petitions on behalf of 30 individuals from Fiji who were in the U.S. on expired visitors' visas. The information was forwarded to INS for investigation. The investigation revealed that only 1 of the 30 petitions met the requirements . . ."
There were similar stories about questionable groups of applicants from Tonga and from Columbia.
These accounts, and those in the other two investigations, are written in color-it-gray, politically correct prose. None of these reports, though all deal with suspect activities of religious organizations and/or their would-be workers, identifies a single religious organization or a single church, and with the exception of one passing reference, there is no information about terrorists.
When cautious government folk write about matters religious, their caution is, apparently, enhanced.
In fact, I read somewhere that no government agency keeps any records by religion, regarding R-1 applications filed or found fraudulent. If they keep no such records, they would never have to discuss the extent that mosques, for instance, use the program. This strikes me as political correctness carried out to nearly suicidal lengths.
DHS Investigates in 2006
The most jolting element in any of the reports is in "Religious Worker Benefit Fraud Assessment Summary," a DHS report issued in July 2006. By then INS had been merged into the new department.
Its major finding: "[the agency] has completed the first phase of the Benefit Fraud Assessment. 220 religious worker petitions (Form I-360) have been reviewed. Of that, 72 cases (32.73%) resulted in a finding of fraud. Many of the cases reviewed had multiple fraud indicators."
Elsewhere in the report the investigators stated that the 220 cases had been drawn from the files in a random technique approved by the DHS Office of Immigration Statistics.
The examples among the 72 included these three: "'Paper' Church; addresses were offices with no indication of religious functions. The petitioner appears to be an investment/financial organization . . . petitioner [i.e., the church] unaware of the petition/beneficiary . . . the petitioner has filed at least 82 petitions with many fraud indicators including the misrepresentation of qualifications . . ."
The one glancing reference to terrorism follows: "Fraud: the signer of the petition could not be located and cannot be connected to the petitioning group; religious group address is an apartment in an apartment complex. Note: Record checks reveal that an individual suspected of membership with a terrorist organization has used the petitioner's address."
Social Security Also Examines the Matter in 2009
In my experience, the Social Security Administration has never taken any initiative in uncovering immigration fraud, so I found it surprising that it had published a "Management Advisory Report" on "R-1 Religious Workers' Use of Social Security Numbers" in March 2009.
The SSA, coincidentally, also found that about 30 percent of the 200 cases it reviewed were instances of fraud. That was the percentage of R-1 religious workers whose earnings showed either self-employment only, work with secular organizations, or a combination of secular and religious organization wages. Since the R-1 visa allows employment only with religious organizations, each of these workers was out of compliance with the immigration law, as were all of their sponsoring agencies.
The SSA study also found that 39 percent of the R-1s had no wages reported, and it questioned whether it was "prudent" to issue Social Security numbers to people who will not receive wages. (SSA did not check further to see if these 39 percent were working in the cash economy.)
The point about many R-1 workers not receiving wages was picked up by an anti-Scientology website, whose reliability is unknown to me. It says in this connection: "Scientology should be singled out and investigated, but of course they will cry bigotry if this should happen. A tough and sad situation, and exactly why they have been getting away with human trafficking for so long."
Scientology critics say that the organization exploits many of its followers, making them work long hours with no pay other than bed and board, and uses the R-1 visa to bring more victims to the States. There are several websites providing the critics' views on this point, see here and here.
There is apparently a continuing, and I think under-reported, series of controversies between DHS and Scientology over the use of the R-1 visas. I am, in this instance, rooting for the Department!