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In fighting visa fraud, nothing beats the personal touch

The immigration investigator was polite but persistent as he approached the leasing agent at a five-story office building in El Monte. Where is Suite 105? Can I see it? Where is the person who established the business?

The leasing agent paused. The businessman was trying to set up the office a year ago, she said, but he never did. Actually, she added, he used the place only as a mailing address.

Bingo. According to immigration official Rand L. Gallagher, the visit confirmed his suspicions that the Chinese national in question had filed a fraudulent application for a business visa. The visa petition claimed the El Monte office housed employees who were going to start a U.S. subsidiary of an import-export parent company in China.

But “Suite 105" turned out to be a tiny side room inside the leasing office, with no workers and no evidence of a business operation.

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“There’s a lot of covering up going on,” said Gallagher, who heads the western operations of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ anti-fraud unit. “I doubt the guy was even here.”

Increased site visits like the recent trip to El Monte are a key tool in the federal government’s newly aggressive fight against immigration fraud. The visits are to expand to as many as 25,000 this fiscal year from 5,000 last year, according to Alejandro N. Mayorkas, director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Site visits are required for each application for a religious worker visa after a 2006 internal review found a 33% fraud rate. The expanded site visit program will focus on applicants for a skilled worker visa known as H-1B. Applications in that visa category were found to have a 21% rate of fraud or technical violations in a 2008 internal review.

Investigators have found applicants for skilled worker or managerial visas working at convenience stores, fast-food restaurants and video shops. They have discovered bogus firms, as in the El Monte case. They have documented exaggerated claims, such as an Armenian flower shop in Glendale that asserted the need to bring in a foreign worker as a full-time accountant when the business, on inspection, turned out to be far too small to need one.

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“I’d be happy to find that everything was legitimate, but that’s not the real world,” said Gallagher, who has investigated immigration fraud for 14 years and previously served as an intelligence analyst, interrogator and linguist in the U.S. Air Force. “The reality is that there are many people who exploit our agency. . . . We’re trying to make sure we give benefits to people who actually deserve them.”

Some fear, however, that the aggressive anti-fraud effort is having unintended negative consequences. Robert P. Deasy, a spokesman for the American Immigration Lawyers Assn., said many of his organization’s business clients are complaining that denial rates for visa applications appear to be on the rise even for legitimate applicants.

Although immigration officials could not provide overall denial rates, a government study last year found they doubled for religious worker petitions, to 60% in fiscal year 2007 from 31% the previous year.

In addition, Deasy said, many of his members are concerned that the government is contracting out site visits to people whom they view as inadequately trained in immigration law.

“We’re seeing a whole lot of employer heartburn,” Deasy said.

The federal push on immigration fraud began after a 2002 study by government auditors found that immigration fraud was “pervasive and significant” and that immigration officials were poorly equipped to fight it.

The report expressed alarm that criminals were increasingly using the application process to gain legal entry into the U.S. for narcotics trafficking, terrorism and other illegal activity.

Since then, the government has increased resources and reorganized its anti-fraud operations, including the 2004 establishment of the Office of Fraud Detection and National Security to find false claims involving marriage petitions, work visas, green card renewals and other immigration benefits. Gallagher heads the nation’s largest regional program, which is based in Laguna Niguel and covers California, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii.

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In the last six years, the number of anti-fraud officers nationwide has grown from 100 to 600. Offices have been established in Mexico and Germany, with others being considered for the Philippines, China, India and South Korea.

The number of fraud leads investigated has jumped from 2,620 in 2005 to 31,827 last year.

And the fraud office’s budget has swelled to $95 million in fiscal year 2009, up from about $20 million five years earlier. To help fund the operations, Congress approved a $500 “fraud fee” on certain business visa applications, raising millions of dollars a year for investigators in the Homeland Security, Labor and State departments.

Addressing a key criticism in the 2002 report, officials have created a national case management system to allow investigators to share information across state lines.

That system allowed Gallagher and his staff to learn that one Southern California man suspected of business visa fraud had moved to South Carolina and was trying to win legal status through marriage to a U.S. citizen.

The couple withdrew their petition in November after an immigration officer found in an interview that the Chinese suspect and African American woman were 15 years apart in age, did not speak each other’s native language and shared no common address. His green card application was denied in November and he has been ordered to appear before an immigration judge.

New technology, including an enhanced computer system with expanded access to databases, has also aided the fight against fraud, Gallagher said.

For green card renewals, for instance, officers can now see the photos and other biographical information in the original application to scan for potential fraud. That advance has helped keep fraud rates low for green card replacements -- less than 1%, according to an internal review.

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“We are by no means less vigilant than we were in 2002,” Mayorkas said. “But our vigilance is far better equipped than it was then.”

Mayorkas added that better collaboration with other agencies has also helped the anti-fraud effort. In Los Angeles, the immigration services and customs and enforcement agencies have collaborated to break some major fraud cases. But site visits have proved to be one of the biggest keys to success, Gallagher said. An applicant’s paperwork can raise red flags: A new subsidiary claiming it needs four or five foreign managers, for instance, will probably be scrutinized.

But nothing clinches a case like face-to-face encounters, investigators say. Once, Gallagher drove out to a north Los Angeles County community to visit a supposed applicant for a managerial visa.

Instead, he found a farmer loading fruit and vegetables into a trailer who knew nothing about the visa petition.

His name had been used by a man whom officials ultimately found had filed more than a dozen fraudulent visa petitions.

U.S. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who has led the fight for tougher anti-fraud efforts, praised the progress that has been made but cautioned that the problem was a “vicious cycle that never really ends.”

teresa.watanabe

@latimes.com


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