GAO audit warns of visa terror risk
Fraud found in 'diversity' lottery involving 50,000 immigrants a year
By JAMES PINKERTON
Dec. 1, 2007, 9:28AM
A look at the diversity visa process
A little-known immigration lottery that grants 50,000 visas a year poses a ''pervasive fraud risk” and could be used by terrorists with false documents to enter the U.S., according to federal auditors.
Called the “diversity visa,” the program is designed to bring variety to the stream of immigrants legally entering the country. The deadline to apply for this year's lottery is 11 a.m. Sunday, and it is open to citizens of 170 countries that sent fewer than 50,000 immigrants during the past five years, according to the U.S. State Department.
But at six of 11 consular posts reviewed by Government Accountability Office investigators, officers found ''widespread” use of fake documents, including counterfeit birth and marriage certificates and passports, according to the agency's report in September.
A 2002 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Bangladesh noted that ''the ease with which individuals can obtain genuine identity documents in any assumed identity, including passports, creates an 'open door' for terrorists wishing to enter the Unites States with legal status,” the report said.
The auditors also noted that nearly 9,800 immigrants from countries designated as state sponsors of terror, including Iran and Syria, have earned permanent residency since 2000.
''It's just nonsensical to have a lottery to choose who gets into the United States when we are at war with terrorists,” said U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston. ''It's insane it's a recipe for disaster.”
State Department press officials in Washington would not comment on this year's lottery, or on the GAO report.
The program was created in 1990 through legislation sponsored by U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy.
In a statement issued Thursday, the Massachusetts Democrat said: “The program attracts immigrants who exhibit the qualities we most value: ambition, courage, initiative and a desire to work hard to make a better life for themselves and their families.”
More than 500,000 applicants, the majority from Africa and Europe, have become permanent legal residents through the program, the GAO reported.
The GAO noted the State Department ''has taken steps to strengthen the DV program, but it does not have a strategy to address the pervasive fraud being reported by consular officers at some posts.”
Some of the fraud involves what are known as visa agents.
Many lottery applicants who do not have computers or lack Internet savvy rely on visa agents to process their applications. In some cases, the report said, agents charged their clients up to $20,000 for the visa packages.
Some winning applicants who did not have the money were forced by agents to participate in sham marriages with paying clients.
Local immigration lawyer Bruce Coane said concerns about terrorism involving the diversity visa program were without merit.
Coane said that, as with all visa applicants, those winning the lottery ''have to clear all the same security checks everybody else has to and they include FBI and CIA clearance.”
Still, there is opposition from lawyers and groups lobbying for limited immigration.
Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA in Virginia, which favors restricting immigration, called the visa lottery the ''perfect symbol of how irrational our immigration polices are.”
Visa applicants must show they have the equivalent of a high school education, or have worked at least two years in an occupation requiring at least two years of training. Applications can be submitted only to the State Department's Web site, www.dvlottery.state.gov.
Some local immigration attorneys, including Gordon Quan, consider the DV program unfair to other immigrants.
''There are so many people trying to immigrate based on relatives, or on a job, and they're waiting for years,” Quan said. ''And here is someone from one of these countries who wins the lottery, and jumps the line, and it doesn't seem fair.”
Among the 20 countries excluded from this year's lottery due to high levels of immigration are China, India, Pakistan, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Vietnam.
Green cards: Applicants and their families can apply for a green card, or legal permanent residency, after entering the United States with a diversity visa.
Applications: Legal immigrants already in the country on other visas can apply for the diversity visa.
Numbers: The diversity visa comprised 4 percent of the 1.3 million visas granted last year. In all, 5.5 million applied for the visas in 2006.
Winners: Ethiopia, Nigeria and Ukraine are consistently the top diversity visa winners.
A look at the diversity visa process