Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., repeated President Donald Trump’s criticism of the diversity visa program, claiming that the program is "plagued by fraud."
An Oct. 31 terrorist attack in New York City resulted in eight deaths and about a dozen injuries. Trump said the suspect came to the United States through the diversity visa program and called for its termination.
Perdue co-sponsored the Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy (RAISE) Act, seeking to reduce legal immigration to the United States and to eliminate the diversity visa program, which allows up to 50,000 immigrants per year.
We wanted to know the accuracy of Perdue’s fraud claim and found that government reports and officials have identified fraud as an issue in the program. The State Department said it did not have data to determine how widespread the problem is, and experts told us they were unaware of quantitative estimates.
The diversity visa program, administered by the State Department, was created in 1990 through a bill signed into law by former President George H. W. Bush.
The program is intended to diversify the U.S. immigrant population, granting up to 50,000 visas annually to individuals from countries that in the previous five years had low rates of immigration to the United States. A lottery system that began in 1995 allows individuals to enter for a chance to apply for a visa.
Fraud in the diversity visa program has been a concern for years among lawmakers and government officials. Reports of fraud have even led government agencies to post warnings about scammers’ attempt to deceive applicants.
But the State Department told us it did not have data on how widespread fraud is in the program, or what percentage of applications or lottery entries per year are believed to be fraudulent. There are "extensive programs to vigorously prevent and combat U.S. passport and visa fraud" and the department investigates all fraud allegations, said Noel Clay, State Department spokesman.
A 2007 U.S. Government and Accountability report said the program was "vulnerable to fraud committed by and against (diversity visa) applicants" and that the State Department had not compiled comprehensive data on detected and suspected fraudulent activity.
Consular officers reported that in countries such as Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nepal, Nigeria, and Ukraine, applicants lacked access to computers or were not internet savvy, therefore sought help from "visa agents" or "visa consultants." Some providers took advantage of applicants by disseminating misleading information, intercepting official correspondence, and charging exorbitant fees for each step in the process, the 2007 report said.
In Bangladesh, some agents used their own address on entry forms so that program notification letters would go to them instead of the person in the entry, and in some cases "held these letters for up to $20,000 in ransom" or offered to reduce the fee if the selectee entered into a sham marriage and added the spouse to the application, the report said.
A September 2013 report from the State Department’s Office of Inspector General said there was a "pervasive and sophisticated fraud scheme" affecting the program in Ukraine.
Organized fraud rings in Ukraine masquerading as travel agencies buy, steal or obtain from public sources information on Ukrainian citizens and enter their data into the program’s online entry form. The fraud rings contact individuals who win the lottery and demand $15,000 in exchange for a confirmation number sent by the State Department that’s needed to proceed with the visa application. If the person can’t pay, fraud rings seek to enter that person in a sham marriage with someone else who wants to come to the United States and is willing to pay the fraud rings a fee for the pairing, the report said.
"There is no question that fraud is rampant in the diversity visa lottery program," said Jessica M. Vaughan, director of policy studies at Center for Immigration Studies, which favors low-immigration levels.
Vaughan said there’s "massive document fraud" that’s difficult for consular officers to detect — where people apply first and later produce required information, such as education or work experience documentation.
Vaughan and Jan C. Ting, a law professor at the Temple University Beasley School of Law in Philadelphia, told us they were unaware of quantitative estimates of the amount of fraud in the program.
"It is very likely that people have obtained diversity visas through fraud and successfully immigrated to the U.S. and become citizens because of their fraud," said Ting, who in 2004 testified before a House committee in objection to the program.
Charles D. Piot, an anthropologist and professor at Duke University, says there was a lot of gaming of the system when it was first instituted, but technology added to the process now makes it unlikely for a type of fraud where an applicant is substituted by another person.
"It's important to emphasize that today it's impossible for applicants to sell his or her identity, to swap out that identity, because of the biometrics," said Piot, who has done research on Togolese who came to the United States via the visa lottery.
Perdue said the diversity visa program is "plagued by fraud."
The State Department did not provide data on how widespread fraud is within the program, but fraud issues have been documented for many years. Some of the fraud involves organized groups entering individuals into the lottery without their consent and then extracting money from them in exchange for a confirmation number needed for the visa application process. Technology helps prevent the type of fraud where a person would take the place of the original applicant.
We rate Perdue’s claim Mostly True.