Watchdog finds pervasive fraud in visa lottery
A State Department program to issue as many as 55,000 "diversity" visas annually is rife with fraud and could be exploited by terrorists or criminals to gain residency in the United States, although none are known to have done so, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.
In reviewing operations at headquarters, 11 consular posts abroad and the Kentucky Consular Center that administers the online entry and selection process, GAO found no evidence that terrorists have targeted the lottery program, which is intended for would-be immigrants with no family ties or assured employment in the United States. Nonetheless, hundreds of recipients every year come from countries designated as state sponsors of terrorism, including Syria, Iran, Sudan, North Korea and Cuba.
"This places a premium on mitigating fraud risks," GAO said in a report (GAO-07-1174) released Friday.
The congressional auditors recommended that State compile more comprehensive data on the program and develop a strategy to combat fraud.
Consular officers in Ghana, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Bangladesh and Poland told GAO auditors that it was hard to verify applicants’ identities and eligibility, and that detecting fraudulent marriages also was extremely difficult.
Applicants must enter the lottery online, but because so many lack access to a computer or are insufficiently familiar with the Internet, they often seek help from unscrupulous local "visa agents" who take advantage of their ignorance.
"The problems of fraud and abuse as reported by consular officers . . . are often rooted in the fact that a majority of the [diversity visa] applicants at those posts sought assistance from the visa industry to enter the lottery," GAO found. "In doing so, they are sometimes extorted for large sums of money or coerced into sham marriages by unscrupulous entities in this industry."
The auditors added that, "Despite much anecdotal information on [diversity visa] program fraud and abuse, State has not compiled comprehensive data on detected or suspected fraud across all [diversity visa]-issuing posts."
In its written response to the report, State disagreed with that assertion: "As GAO was informed, broader, systemic fraud analysis and reporting is routinely provided to posts worldwide and includes information developed from diversity visa case experiences and post feedback."
State also maintained that GAO did not give the agency credit for identifying and combating fraud within the visa program.
"It is a sad reality that all visa categories encounter sham marriages, suspect identities, fraudulent documents, use of agents and unlikely stories... The very nature of the congressionally-mandated [diversity visa] program, a lottery system which requires no relative or employer sponsorship and therefore serves as a vehicle for huge populations without existing U.S. connections, makes it particularly susceptible to human gullibility and in some cases desperation," State officials noted.
GAO found that applicants often have a poor understanding of how the process works and sometimes very little control over the information submitted on their behalf if they are working through intermediaries. That’s inevitable in a country like Bangladesh, which has one of the lowest Internet access and usage rates in the world, yet accounts for the highest number of principal entrants into the diversity visa lottery in recent years. Additionally, applicants’ expectations are sometime wildly off base. One consular officer described applicants who had been told if they "won" the visa lottery they would be given free houses and cars in the United States.
Because individuals granted visas under the program are eligible to apply for permanent residency, the program’s vulnerabilities create significant security concerns, experts told GAO. Those with legal permanent resident status may live and work legally in the United States, travel abroad, petition for family members to join them and eventually apply for citizenship.
The top 10 countries of origin for diversity visa immigrants between 1995 and 2006 were Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ukraine, Albania, Bulgaria, Poland, Bangladesh, Romania, Egypt and Ghana.
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