Asylum-seeker fraud often goes undetected, report shows

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BOSTON – Asylum seekers who fraudulently claim persecution in their home countries may easily escape discovery by U.S. immigration authorities, according to a report from the investigative arm of Congress.

Agencies charged with ferreting out phony stories “have limited capabilities to detect asylum fraud,” the Government Accountability Office, or GAO, said in a study released Wednesday. While both Justice Department and Homeland Security agencies “have mechanisms to investigate fraud in individual applications, neither agency has assessed fraud risks across the asylum process, in accordance with leading practices for managing fraud risks.”

The report didn’t examine the screening process for refugees, a subject that became the focus of nationwide controversy following the Paris terrorist attacks last month. Subsequent calls by dozens of governors, including Republican Charlie Baker in Massachusetts and Democrat Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire, sought details on how Syrians are vetted before any more are resettled in the U.S. The questions they raised and their unwillingness to take more Syrian refugees before getting answers unleashed a barrage of criticism as un-American from advocacy groups and Democratic leaders.

The report issued Wednesday, while it only deals with asylum seekers, points out how porous the screening process can be for immigrants seeking relatively quick  entry to the U.S. In October, FBI Director James Comey cited troubling gaps that also plague the refugee screening process.

The GAO report cited two cases in which investigators from the FBI and local law enforcement said hundreds of individuals were granted asylum after working with lawyers who had been charged with immigration fraud schemes that included preparing phony claims of persecution. One, called “Operation Fiction Writer” in 2014, “resulted in charges against 30 defendants, including 8 attorneys, for their alleged participation in immigration fraud schemes in New York City,” the report said.

Lawyers charged in those cases had filed 5,773 asylum applications and 829 were successful, the report said. Another 3,709 people connected to those lawyers had asylum granted in immigration court, it said. The GAO said it couldn’t say how many of those that were successful may have been fraudulent, if any.

Most often, the report said, the fraudulent claims stemmed from China’s family planning policy, including forced abortions, persecution because of holding Christian beliefs, and because of political or ideological connections.

In the second case, two asylum application preparers in the Los Angeles area were convicted on charges connected with forms they prepared for Chinese immigrants, who falsely claimed persecution because of their Christian beliefs. The consultants, who charged applicants about $6,500 each, were tied to more than 800 asylum applications. The report said it wasn’t clear if any people who made bogus claims received asylum.

The GAO recommended the agencies “conduct regular fraud risk assessments,” put fraud-detection tools to work and establish procedures and responsibilities for personnel to prevent fraud. Despite the report’s findings of fraud involving the cases in New York and Los Angeles, it said that just 374 people had had their asylum status revoked because of phony claims from fiscal 2010 through 2014.

At the Justice Department, agency spokesman Joseph Holstead said the GAO the report doesn’t take into account recent improvements in procedures, including the creation of a dedicated Fraud Detection and National Security branch, according to the Associated Press. Holstead said the agency agrees with the GAO’s recommendations.

More than 108,000 immigrants and their dependents filed for asylum in fiscal 2014 alone, the report said. As of September of this year, the Homeland Security agency had a backlog of more than 106,000 asylum cases pending, it said. The report showed that the top origins of applications, more than 80,000 combined from 2010 through 2014, were Mexico and China.

No more than 15 Syrians were resettled in Massachusetts under the asylum process in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, according to data from the state’s Office for Refugees and Immigrants. It said 70 Syrian refugees had been relocated to Massachusetts in the past fiscal year, compared with four in 2013.

The governors who expressed concern about refugee screening last month included Greg Abbott in Texas. On Wednesday, his state sued the U.S. to prevent six Syrian refugees from being resettled in the Dallas area this week, according to the Associated Press. The federal government has said that states don’t have the power to prevent refugee resettlements.

More than 170 Syrians have settled in the U.S. since the Paris attacks, including in states whose governors resisted new refugees, the AP reported, citing State Department figures. The Obama administration says that screening of Syrian refugees is thorough and can take up to two years.

Abbott earlier Wednesday said the State Department offered “absolutely no guarantees” about safety ahead of the arrival of the Syrians headed to Dallas. “It is irresponsible for the refugee resettlement operations to put aside any type of security interest and continue to press on about this,” Abbott said.

“The effective rubberstamping of asylum applications is one of the root causes of the ongoing border surge and it also carries with it serious national security concerns,” Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican and the committee chairman, said in a statement Wednesday. “Terrorism experts agree that the asylum process is a vulnerability that terrorists have and will continue to exploit to gain entry into the United States.”

“This new GAO report adds to mounting evidence that the Obama administration refuses to take the steps necessary to crack down on asylum fraud and protect the integrity of our immigration system,” he said.