Asylum Fraud Takes Center Stage

By David Seminara on July 18, 2011

In a bizarre turn of events, the DSK Affair has served to highlight the issue of asylum fraud. Last week, The New York Times published a well-researched front page story, and a "Room For Debate" op-ed forum on how to tackle the problem. And Jesse Ellison at the Daily Beast weighed in with a ludicrous piece which asserted that "dishonesty is common when it comes to refugees – not because they're intentionally trying to scam the system, but because the way such claims are processed and determined puts asylum-seekers in a position where they may feel they have no other choice."

Right, so the DSK maid was compelled to claim that she was gang-raped because our "torturous immigration system" is just so darn cruel. The truth is that if every immigrant had to face the scrutiny of a team of defense attorneys digging through their visa and immigration applications, the public would learn just how prevalent immigration fraud is.

When I worked as a consular officer, I had an opportunity to interview the family members of successful asylum seekers who were applying for follow-to-join status, after a relative – almost always a husband – was granted asylum in the U.S. I worked at the American Embassy in Macedonia's capital of Skopje in the years shortly after the Kosovo conflict and was struck by the high prevalence of fraud in asylum applications. When a family would arrive at the embassy for their interview, my task was to simply ensure that all of their documents were in order and then sign off on their visas. Immigration judges had already ruled that their relative's asylum application was legitimate, but I still took the time to read the substance of each successful applicant's applications.

The asylum application has a narrative section in which the applicant describes why they have a well-founded fear of persecution if they return home and the narratives I read were always so similar, it almost seemed as though they were cut-and-pasted from one application to the next. The applications almost always had vague claims of threats being made due to involvement with political parties, and many also claimed that the applicant's home had been burned to the ground during the conflict. Nearly every time I read this claim, it turned out to be false.

Along the lines of Mark Krikorian's "safe third country" idea, I would also ask applicants why their relative didn't flee to nearby Albania, rather than the U.S. and would often receive incredulous looks. Well, duh. There's not much incentive to move to another poor country for economic migrants posing as political ones.

Many of the fraudulent claims that are made on asylum applications are fed to the applicants directly from crooked immigration attorneys or fixers. When I worked in Skopje, I once had one of my local employees call two immigration attorneys, chosen at random from an Albanian-American yellow pages book, which contained dozens of ads inducing people into claiming asylum, or azil, as it is called in Albanian. She told two of the attorneys, in Albanian, that she wanted to come live in the U.S. and asked if they could get her asylum. Without asking her any questions about the merits of her case, they both said, essentially, "no problem, just come into the office, we can get you asylum in the States if you can make it here." Sort of like used car salesmen just telling people to come on down and kick some tires on the lot.

Perhaps most galling was the fact that the first thing that many successful asylees did after obtaining residency status was return home to the place that they supposedly feared, to show off their green cards, and, in many cases, return to the States with a new spouse.

How do you combat fraud? First, you need a multilingual investigative staff Stateside doing undercover work, posing as prospective asylum applicants to bust shady immigration attorney's and agents. And then you'd need to have each asylum application farmed out to consular officers in the applicant's country of origin attempting to verify or refute their claims. Some claims are impossible to verify, but officers on the ground, living in that country are in a much better position to comment on the plausibility of an applicant's claims than a judge sitting on a bench in New York or Chicago.

But the most important way to combat immigration fraud is to weed out applicants who present an overstay risk before they arrive. As I pointed out in a 2008 backgrounder on visa fraud, most asylees arrive in the U.S. legally, most commonly on tourist visas. In FY 2010, just 49 Mexican citizens were granted asylum status (out of 3,231 applicants). Dozens of countries located nowhere near the Mexican border had more migrants granted asylum: including Albania (148), Armenia (206), Cameroon (196), Egypt (216), Eritrea (179), Ethiopia (407), and Guinea (186). China topped the list, with 3,795 cases approved, but the visitor's visa refusal rate there is just 13 percent.

In spite of the prevalence of fraud, I still believe that asylum should be an option for those with a legitimate fear of persecution in their home countries. But the truth is that many of the asylees who make it to our shores are simply fleeing poverty, and granting asylum status to economic migrants, especially in a time of high unemployment, simply isn't in our national interest.