GAO Report: State Dept. Has Good Tools but Lacks Coordinated Approach to Address Rampant Visa Fraud

By Jessica M. Vaughan on September 21, 2012

The good news in a new GAO report on visa fraud is that the State Department has developed a variety of new tools over the years to help detect those trying to lie and cheat their way into the United States. The bad news is that top management at State has not been particularly interested in making sure that consular officers are using these tools, even as temporary admissions are at an all-time high, and as the Obama administration seeks to open the gates wider.

This report sets the stage nicely for a new Center initiative. We are assembling an Immigration Fraud Working Group, comprised of former and retired immigration officials, to prepare a set of recommendations for law, policy, and process changes that would help prevent fraud and disrupt the illicit facilitation networks that engage in fraud for criminal purposes.

The GAO report confirms that fraud is as prevalent as ever. The number of visa issuances has climbed back to 2001 levels, with about 7.5 million issuances to non-immigrants and approximately 500,000 to immigrants in 2011. (The number of immigrant visas is less than half the annual total of legal immigration because most legal immigrants are already living in the United States on non-immigrant visas or as illegal aliens.) In addition, millions of visitors from 36 countries entered under the visa waiver program.

More than half of the non-immigrant issuances are to visitors from Brazil, China, India, and Mexico. The report noted that the percentage of applicants refused for tourist visas (by far the largest category of temporary visitor) has declined by more than half since 2006 in each of these countries except India, even though all of these countries are the source of significant flows of illegal settlers. The report notes that in January 2012 President Obama issued an executive order to increase visa processing capacity in China and Brazil by 40 percent in the coming year. Brazil has the lowest refusal rate of the high volume/high fraud countries (4 percent), probably because it is on the short list of countries that the Obama administration wants to add to the visa waiver program.

In 2010, the latest year that could be examined, the top 10 countries for cases referred to fraud prevention units for closer scrutiny were China, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, India, Brazil, Ghana, Cambodia, Jamaica, Peru, and Ukraine. Most cases involve applications for non-immigrant visas. About 74,000 cases were referred worldwide, and 22 percent were confirmed to be fraudulent.

This number is a huge understatement of the actual level of fraud and misrepresentation in the visa process. Consular officers cannot refer each and every suspected case of fraud or misrepresentation for a formal investigation; there are just too many. In countless cases, the applications are simply denied as unqualified or the applications are approved because the fraud is not detected, and the visitor becomes one of the estimated three to five million visa overstays now living here. The scope and nature of fraud problems in the visa process have been covered here and here by my colleague Dave Seminara.

An interview with USCIS FDNS
Architect Don Crocetti on
Non-immigrant Background Checks:
View the Full Interview

The report points out that State has made a number of important improvements in recent years to address fraud. Non-immigrant applications are now submitted electronically, facilitating pre-screening and technology-assisted screening and analysis of indicators. Posts can more easily share information and communicate with each other on trends and threats. In addition, the Kentucky Consular Center (KCC), a centralized processing facility, has begun offering a variety of invaluable screening and investigative services that cannot be easily managed from overseas. For example, the KCC can check out the claims of employers, organizations, or individuals seeking to sponsor immigrants or visitors and coordinate with DHS agencies. State has also developed several training classes for consular officers.

Unfortunately, State Department senior managers have not required or encouraged consular officers — even those assigned to manage fraud prevention units — to get the necessary training and learn about the new tools to counter fraud. This ambivalence toward building the capacity within the department to effectively root out fraud suggests that for State leadership (both career officers and political appointees), the integrity of the visa process and national security still take a back seat to facilitating the entry of foreign visitors, whatever the risk.

Anyone interested in participating in the CIS Fraud Working Group, or simply learning more about it, should contact me at [email protected], or through our DC office at (202) 466-8185.