FAIR Issue Brief | Afghanistan Crisis: Fraud and Vetting Risks in the American SIV and Refugee Programs
A FAIR Research Team Report
President Biden's poorly executed withdrawal of U.S. personnel from Afghanistan has quickly become one of the largest crises of his administration, rivaling the also self-inflicted and ongoing crisis at the southern border. Even worse, they could merge together, as recently released Afghan terrorists will surely recognize the open southern border for what it is — an easy means of entry into the United States stacked on top of deeply-flawed legal immigration programs-
Outside of the paramount concern surrounding whether the administration will be able to evacuate all U.S. citizens from the country, there is also the question regarding how to protect the thousands of Afghans who assisted our military over the past 20 years. Understandably, the Taliban's takeover of the country has prompted concerns over the safety of these Afghan allies and their families.[i]
Many elected officeholders and political commentators are calling for the United States to resettle as many as 200,000 Afghan residents into the country.[ii] Currently, the Biden Administration is considering bringing at least 50,000 unvetted Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants and other refugees into the country via Humanitarian Parole.[iii][iv] This mass-importation of individuals would include not just those who directly assisted our military and government in critical positions such as interpreters and informants, but would also include thousands of others who did not directly assist the U.S.
In addition to the use of Humanitarian Parole, there are a number of other avenues under consideration as potential options for permanently resettling these individuals into the country. The two programs that are most commonly discussed include, as mentioned above, the visa category created for those who directly assisted our military (SIV), and drastically expanding admissions under the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). However, both of these programs pose significant abuse and fraud risks.
Fraud and Abuse is Common in the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) Program
Congress created the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) category following passage of the Defense Authorization Act of 2006.[v] The SIV program was designed to grant legal permanent residence to select Afghan and Iraqi nationals who served as interpreters, translators, or informants for the U.S. Government or armed forces. The visa category also extends to the immediate family members of the initial visa holder.[vi]
Many politicians and pundits are calling on the federal government to drastically expand admissions via this program.[vii] [viii] In fact, Congress just increased the number of available visas, broadened eligibility requirements, and accelerated processing. However, going down this path yet again would be dangerous and extremely misguided. Allowing massive numbers of individuals who are impossible to properly vet from a terror-prone region into the United States does not serve the national security interests of the American people.[ix]
Even without a massive expansion, the SIV program is already extremely prone to fraudulent applications. According to Stephen Dinan of The Washington Times, 84 percent of Afghan SIV applications were denied during the first three months of 2021.[x] Moreover, a stark warning in a June 2020 report from the State Department's Inspector General highlights these risks. "…Instances of fraud [in Afghan SIV applications], such as misrepresenting the age of a derivative child and falsifying documentation, are relatively high compared to other countries and programs…" [xi]
The same report also revealed that the State Department does not use any official documentation to conduct background checks on SIV applicants, and instead relies primarily on non-government sources and interviews to vet applicants. It notes that “the lack of a centralized database contributes to delays in processing SIV applicants, and current practices for verifying Afghan SIV applicants increase the Department’s risk for fraud and threats to national security." [xii] Without proper records or mechanisms to research SIV applicants, the U.S. is prone to terrorists and other bad actors entering the country.
The United States has already experienced SIV holders engaging in illicit activity within the country. In August 2019, the Department of Justice announced the indictment of Mujeeb Rahman Saify, a former Afghan interpreter for U.S. armed forces. Saify was charged with conspiring with a smuggling network based out of Afghanistan and Pakistan to illegally smuggle two Afghans through Mexico and eventually into the United States. Sayif entered the United States in 2009 after receiving an SIV.[xiii]
Furthermore, it’s important to keep in mind that even if we can prove that an individual assisted allied forces in the past, it does not automatically mean they pose no threat to our national security. Unfortunately, there have been many "green-on-blue” incidents, which are surprise attacks on NATO and Coalition forces coordinated by assumed Afghan allies who betray Western military forces.[xiv]
Between 2007 and 2012, there were 71 documented green-on-blue attacks – 25 percent of which the Taliban took responsibility for.[xv] In 2019 alone, 172 allied soldiers were killed in green-on-blue attacks, with an additional 85 wounded.[xvi] In December of 2019, a Taliban member who infiltrated the Afghan military killed 23 soldiers.[xvii]
According to a 2018 investigation, many Afghan troops are not vetted at all. In addition, those who fail background checks are often not immediately removed from their military units.[xviii] While most Afghan interpreters, translators, informants, and other partners are not bad actors, the United States must still thoroughly vet every SIV applicant to ensure they do not have ties or allegiances to the Taliban or other extremist groups.
Fraud and Abuse in the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP)
From 2001, when the war first began, to 2019, 19,743 Afghan refugees have been resettled into the United States through the USRAP. Many advocates and politicians are promoting the idea that the Biden administration drastically increase the annual refugee cap to admit those who wish to flee Taliban rule in Afghanistan, but do not qualify for an SIV.[xix] [xx]
To qualify as a refugee, a person must meet the following definition from Section 101(a)(42) of the Immigration and Nationality Act: "any person who... is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of [their home country] because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion...."[xxi]
A commonly-touted avenue to achieve this is to drastically increase refugee admissions via the USRAP Priority 2 (P-2) Designation for Afghan Nationals. The State Department recently made this program available to Afghan citizens with associations to the US government but who are unable to qualify for an SIV.[xxii] Eligible applicants typically include Afghans who worked for projects or programs funded by US grants, US-based media organizations, and non-governmental organizations.
While this P-2 designation for Afghan nationals is new, a similar version of this program was first established in 2007 for Iraqis called the USRAP Direct Access Program for U.S.-Affiliated Iraqis.[xxiii] Since its inception, more than 100,000 Iraqi refugees have been resettled in the United States via this initiative.[xxiv] However, widespread evidence of fraud and abuse led to the program's temporary suspension in early 2021.
According to State Department reports reviewed by Reuters, around 4,000 Iraqi nationals are suspected of filing fraudulent applications for the Direct Access Program.[xxv] To date, more than 500 already-admitted refugees have been involved in the alleged fraud and may be subject to deportation and/or revocation of their acquired citizenship. This massive uncovering has led US authorities to re-examine more than 104,000 other cases. According to the indictment,[xxvi] three foreign nationals have also been accused of money laundering, fraud, and records theft. These men allegedly stole information from the State Department’s Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System that was used to assist applicants in fraudulently gaining admission into the US.
This flagrant abuse eventually led to the indefinite suspension of the Direct Access Program for Iraqi nationals. The program had previously been suspended temporarily in 2015 after two refugees admitted into the US were discovered to have filed fraudulent documents.[xxvii] From March to December of 2015, State Department and Refugee Support Center (RSC) officials reviewed all processing cases and found additional applicants with fraudulent documents.
These are not isolated cases, either. A seven-month investigation into the U.N’s refugee agency in five countries – Kenya, Uganda, Yemen, Ethiopia, and Libya – found that United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) staffers accepted bribes in exchange for refugee referrals to Western countries.[xxviii] Furthermore, the Obama administration expanded the number of Refugee Support Centers (RSCs) in countries with high corruption index scores. According to the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), the average corruption score of these countries is 43.4/100, where 0 is “highly corrupt” and 100 is “very clean.”[xxix] For reference, the United States corruption score is 74/100. This is highly problematic since RSCs are responsible for pre-screening refugees abroad and helping them build a case for resettlement in the United States.
Concerns surrounding fraud in the refugee process are shared by the UNHCR. According to the refugee agency, “Refugee status and resettlement places are valuable commodities, particularly in countries with acute poverty, where the temptation to make money by whatever means is strong. This makes the resettlement process a target for abuse.”[xxx] A 2017 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report[xxxi] also found that RSCs are vulnerable to fraud.
In total, 45 of 70 relevant Refugee Affairs Division (RAD) trip reports recently analyzed by the GAO identified major concerns with the quality of certain case files including missing documentation. The report also found that USCIS has not conducted Quality Assurance Assessments (QAA) of Refugee Adjudications since FY 2015.
Finally, a 2017 FBI report in the United States found that one-third of all active terrorism-related investigations involved someone who entered the country as a refugee.[xxxii]
The Pentagon has already announced that hundreds of the individuals being flown out of Afghanistan have been flagged for potential ties to terrorist groups. And they admitted that it will likely be impossible to investigate all of these cases before they arrive to the United States.[xxxiii] Accepting such risk is reckless and unconscionable.
Clearly, the refugee program in the Unites States already struggles with vetting issues and an alarming rate of fraudulent applications. Weakening or eliminating our vetting process while simultaneously increasing admissions is a recipe for disaster.
Potentially allowing the entry of hundreds of thousands of unvetted individuals from a terror-prone nation into the U.S. is not a proper solution to the unfolding crisis in Afghanistan. In addition to American citizens, Afghan refugees would also have their safety be put at risk if a terrorist were discovered in this massive bloc. Conducting an extensive vetting process before the entry of any foreign national is commonsense and must be a part of any policy that includes bringing refugees or SIV applicants into the country.
Furthermore, it’s imperative that the United States also considers alternative options for assisting at-risk Afghans. This includes the resettlement of refugees in nearby countries that have similar cultures, business practices, and languages. According to a CIS report, this strategy would allow for the United States to resettle 12 refugees for the cost of bringing one individual into the United States.[xxxiv] In addition to costing taxpayers nearly $16,000 per year, refugees in the United States traditionally struggle to learn English and make a living wage for many years.[xxxv] So, while resettling individuals here in the United States may induce the warm and fuzzy appearance that we are helping, in actuality it drastically reduces the number of refugees we can save from the nefarious intentions of the Taliban. Regional resettlement allows for us to assist far more individuals for a fraction of the cost, and none of the related domestic terrorism risks.
The United States owes some form of assistance to some Afghans as well as allies in the Middle East. However, mass-refugee resettlement in the states – with no adequate vetting procedure – would simply be an attempt to correct our mistakes in Afghanistan by making new mistakes that place American citizens and Afghan refugees alike at risk. We owe it to everyone involved in this crisis to pursue a course of action that protects the interests of American citizens, while simultaneously promoting regional stability.
[i] Julia Hollingsworth, “Who Are the Taliban and How Did They Take Control of Afghanistan so Swiftly?” CNN, August 24, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/08/16/middleeast/taliban-control-afghanistan-explained-intl-hnk/index.html.
[ii] Jake Johnson, “AOC, Barbera Lee to Biden: Lift Refugee Cap to 200,000 to help Afghans,” Common Dreams, August 27, 2021, https://www.commondreams.org/news/2021/08/27/aoc-barbara-lee-biden-lift-refugee-cap-200000-help-afghans
[iii] Sophia Cai, “U.S. Tells Refugee Aid Groups to Get Ready for 50,000 Afghans,” Bloomberg, August 24, 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-08-24/u-s-tells-refugee-aid-groups-to-get-ready-for-50-000-afghans
[iv] U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, “Humanitarian or Significant Public Benefit Parole for Individuals Outside the United States,” Accessed August 26, 2021, https://www.uscis.gov/humanitarian/humanitarian-or-significant-public-benefit-parole-for-individuals-outside-the-united-states.
[v] U.S. Department of State, “Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) for Iraqi and Afghan Translators/Interpreters,” Accessed August 25, 2021, https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/immigrate/siv-iraqi-afghan-translators-interpreters.html.
[vii] Jeanne Shaheen et al. to Joseph R. Biden, August 19, 2021, In SIV Evacuation and Implementation Letter, https://www.shaheen.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/2021-08-19%20-%20SIV%20Evacuation%20and%20Implementation%20Letter%20(2).pdf.
[viii] The Editorial Board, “The Right and Our Afghan Allies,” WSJ, August 19, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-right-and-our-afghan-allies-special-immigrant-visa-program-11629403595.
[ix] FAIR Take, “House Passes FAIR-Opposed Allies Act,” Federation for American Immigration Reform, July 2021, https://www.fairus.org/legislation/federal-legislation/legal-immigration/house-passes-fair-opposed-allies-act.
[x] Stephen Dinan, “Rush to Approve Afghan Visas Poses Serious Risks,” The Washington Times, August 18, 2021 https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2021/aug/17/rush-approve-afghan-visas-poses-serious-risks/.
[xi] Office of Inspector General, “Review of the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa Program,” State Department, June 2020, https://www.stateoig.gov/system/files/aud-mero-20-35.pdf.
[xiii] Department of Justice, “Afghanistan National and Former U.S. Military Interpreter Charged for Role in Human Smuggling Conspiracy,” August 2, 2019, https://www.justice.gov/usao-nj/pr/afghanistan-national-and-former-us-military-interpreter-charged-role-human-smuggling.
[xiv] Blake Stilwell, “Green on Blue: The Allies Who Attack U.S. Troops While Their Guard is Down,” We Are Mighty, February 5, 2020, https://www.wearethemighty.com/articles/green-blue-allies-attack-u-s-troops-guard/.
[xvi] Paul Szoldra, “2019 Was the deadliest Year on Record for insider Attacks in Afghanistan,” Task & Purpose, May 20, 2020, https://taskandpurpose.com/news/insider-attacks-afghanistan/.
[xvii] Fahim Abed, “At Least 23 Soldiers Killed in Insider Attack in Afghanistan,” The New York Times, December 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/14/world/asia/afghanistan-soldiers-taliban.html.
[xviii] Kyle Rempfer, “Investigation of 2018 Green-on-Blue Attack Criticizes Vetting of Afghan Forces, Praises Actions of US Riflemen,” Army Times, June 26, 2020, https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-army/2020/06/26/investigation-of-2018-green-on-blue-attack-criticizes-vetting-of-afghan-forces-praises-actions-of-us-riflemen/.
[xix] David A. Super, “Save the Brave Women of Afghanistan,” The Hill, August 26, 2021, https://thehill.com/opinion/immigration/569531-save-the-brave-women-of-afghanistan.
[xx] Eric Schwartz to Joseph R. Biden, August 16, 2021, In Refugees International, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/506c8ea1e4b01d9450dd53f5/t/611d77ece39654533a84f617/1629321196816/Refugees+International+Letter+Biden.pdf.
[xxi] 8 U.S. Code §1101: Refugees, https://uscode.house.gov/view.xhtml?req=granuleid:USC-prelim-title8-section1101&num=0&edition=prelim.
[xxii] Department of State, “U.S. Refugee Admissions Program Priority 2 Designation for Afghan Nationals,” Accessed August 26, 2021, https://www.state.gov/u-s-refugee-admissions-program-priority-2-designation-for-afghan-nationals/.
[xxiii] Department of State, “U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) Direct Access Program for U.S.-Affiliated Iraqis” March 11, 2016, https://2009-2017.state.gov/j/prm/releases/factsheets/2016/254650.htm.
[xxiv] Nayla Rush, “Refugee Resettlement Fraud in the Program for U.S.-Affiliated Iraqis,” The Center for Immigration Studies, August 19, 2021 https://cis.org/Report/Refugee-Resettlement-Fraud-Program-USAffiliated-Iraqis#8.
[xxv] Jonathan Landay and Ted Hesson, “EXCLUSIVE U.S. suspects 4,000 cases of fraud in Iraqi refugee program –documents,” Reuters, June 18, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/exclusive-us-suspects-4000-cases-fraud-iraqi-refugee-program-documents-2021-06-18/.
[xxvi] Department of Justice, “Former U.S. Government Employee Pleads Guilty to Conspiracy to Steal U.S. Government Records and Defraud U.S. Refugee Program,” January 26, 2021, https://www.justice.gov/usao-dc/pr/former-us-government-employee-pleads-guilty-conspiracy-steal-us-government-records-and.
[xxvii] Government Accountability Office, “Refugees,” “Actions Needed by State Department and DHS to Further Strengthen Applicant Screening Process and Assess Fraud Risks,” July 2017, https://www.gao.gov/assets/690/686899.pdf.
[xxviii] Sally Hayden, “Asylum for sale: Refugees say some U.N. workers demand bribes for resettlement,” NBC News, April 6, 2019, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/asylum-sale-refugees-say-some-u-n-workers-demand-bribes-n988351.
[xxix] Nayla Rush, The Center for Immigration Studies, “Refugee Resettlement Fraud in the Program for U.S.-Affiliated Iraqis,” The Center for Immigration Studies, August 2021 https://cis.org/Report/Refugee-Resettlement-Fraud-Program-USAffiliated-Iraqis#8.
[xxxi] Government Accountability Office, “Refugees,” “Actions Needed by State Department and DHS to Further Strengthen Applicant Screening Process and Assess Fraud Risks,” July 2017, https://www.gao.gov/assets/690/686899.pdf.
[xxxii] Andrea Noble, “Jeff Sessions: More Than 300 Refugees Involved in Active FBI Terrorism-related Investigations,” The Washington Times, March 6, 2017, https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/mar/6/jeff-sessions-more-than-300-refugees-involved-in-a/.
[xxxiii] Shelby Talcott, ” EXCLUSIVE: Small Percentage Of Afghan Refugees Flagged Through Security Screenings For Possible Ties To Terrorism,” Daily Caller, August 22,2021, https://dailycaller.com/2021/08/22/afghan-refugees-flagged-security-screenings-ties-terrorism-pentagon-biden/
[xxxiv] Steven A. Camarota, “The High Cost of Resettling Middle Eastern Refugees,” The Center for Immigration Studies, November 2015, https://cis.org/Report/High-Cost-Resettling-Middle-Eastern-Refugees.
[xxxv] Matthew O’Brien and Spencer Raley, “The Fiscal Cost of Resettling Refugees in the United States,” Federation for American Immigration Reform, February 2018, https://www.fairus.org/issue/legal-immigration/fiscal-cost-resettling-refugees-united-states.