Confusion over Who Vets Diversity Visas - State Dept or Homeland Security

By Fred Lucas | July 7, 2008 | 8:32 PM EDT

( -The State Department and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) both are rebutting a Government Accountability Office report released last week that said the U.S. government is not adequately vetting immigrants, including those from terrorism-sponsoring countries, who win Diversity Visas (DVs).

Both agencies also disclaimed ultimate responsibility for that vetting process.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) report said that because of identity fraud and lack of adequate and trustworthy databases, the Diversity Visa program is a national security risk.

The report cited one State Department cable, sent from a U.S. consulate in Bangladesh, which called the program an "open door" for terrorists to enter the United States as immigrants with legal permanent-resident visas.

In a separate report, completed two years ago, the State Department's inspector general recommended terminating the Diversity Visa program in those countries listed by the State Department as sponsors of terrorism. The State Department did not adopt the recommendation and continued to distribute Diversity Visas in those countries.

According to Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and several news reports, Egyptian terrorist Mohamed Hadayet - who killed two people at the El Al counter at the Los Angeles International Airport in 2002 - was able to get a green card and stay in the United States through his wife, who had won the Diversity Visa lottery.

Congress created the Diversity Visa Program in 1990. It was designed to increase immigration to the United States from nations that historically have sent small numbers of immigrants to America.

The State Department, which administers the program, is authorized to distribute 50,000 Diversity Visas each year, which are awarded via a lottery to aliens who have registered for the program.

Citizens from countries that have sent less than 50,000 immigrants to the U.S. over the last five years are eligible. This includes citizens from all five nations listed by the State Department as terrorism sponsors: Iran, Syria, Sudan, North Korea and Cuba.

Since 1995, about 9,800 aliens from terror-sponsoring countries have immigrated to the United States using Diversity Visas.

But the problem is not isolated simply to granting DVs to immigrants from terror-sponsoring countries. After examining the Diversity Visa program as implemented at 11 U.S. consular posts, the GAO discovered that at six of them, State Department personnel had difficulty actually identifying who the would-be immigrants were.

"Consular officers at six of the posts reviewed - Accra (Ghana) Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Dhaka, (Bangladesh) Khatmandu (Nepal) Lagos (Nigeria) and Warsaw (Poland) - reported that the availability of fake documents, or genuine documents with false information, such as birth certificates, marriage certificates, and passports, presented significant challenges when verifying DV applicants' identities and the relationship between the principle DV applicants and their spouse and dependents," said the GAO.

The investigators also were not satisfied that the State Department was taking adequate steps to deal with this problem. "Despite much anecdotal information on DV program fraud and abuse," said the GAO report, "State has not compiled comprehensive data on detected or suspected fraud across all DV-issuing posts."

When asked how the State Department could be sure it was not granting DVs to terrorists - given what was reported by the GAO - State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the DHS, rather than the State Department, had responsibility for preventing terrorists from getting Diversity Visas.

"We issue the visa," Casey told Cybercast News Service . "If you wish to apply for a visa, you apply with Homeland Security. We are basically the last step in the process. But the entire rest of the process is something handled by Homeland Security."

A spokesman at Department of Homeland Security's Citizenship and Immigration Services division had a different story.

When asked about vetting the background of Diversity Visa applicants to make sure they are not terrorists, spokesman Chris Bentley said, "The State Department would have to talk to that issue. We just adjust the status of Diversity Visa recipients once they're already here applying for permanent legal status."

The State Department's formal response to the GAO's findings said, "Once applicants are admitted to the United States, authority passes to DHS's Bureau of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services."

In countries of "particular concern," such as Saudi Arabia, DHS personnel are on hand to review applicants, Casey said. But in terror-sponsoring states such as Iran or Sudan, he said, applications must be vetted through Washington, where they will be reviewed by both law enforcement and the intelligence community.

Bentley said DHS can determine if someone is using fake or misleading documents for their visa application, or has a shady background even if they are not in an existing government database.

"Document authorizations, those are the types of things we look for," Bentley said. "We look for patterns in fraud. We don't talk specifics because we don't want to undermine the effectiveness of our security."

Both Casey and Bentley referred more specific questions on Diversity Visas to Steven Royster, another State Department spokesman who specializes in visa issues.

Royster declined to answer questions pertaining to how the State Department would know if a terrorist was getting a visa through the program. Instead, he referred to the State Department's response to the GAO report.

In the response, the State Department rejected the GAO's recommendations and argued that the GAO had ignored the effective security measures the State Department had adopted to detect terrorists trying to exploit the Diversity Visa Program.

"The process includes two types of biometric checks and name checks," said State's response to GAO. "The long lead time involved in an application, the layers of screening, the low probability of selection all complicate exploitation."

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