(CNSNews.com) - The State Department's "Diversity Visa Program" is so prone to fraud that it is an "open door" through which terrorists can enter the United States legally, according to a government investigation.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told CNSNews.com that the investigation demonstrates a need to clean up the program.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO), the non-partisan investigative arm of Congress, examined the program and issued a report on Sept. 21 titled "Border Security: Fraud Risks Complicate State's Ability to Manage Diversity Visa Program."
Among its findings, the GAO called on the State Department to better manage the program to prevent people from successfully using fraudulent identification papers to register for a Diversity Visa (DV).
The GAO also suggested that the State Department keep more comprehensive data on proven or suspected fraud cases and use the data to formulate a better strategy to combat fraud.
The report says that 9,800 people from countries designated by the State Department as "state sponsors of terrorism" have used this program to gain permanent legal status in the United States. Of those, more than 3,000 have come from Iran and Sudan respectively, while 160 have come from Syria, and 2,700 have come from Cuba.
The Diversity Visa Program differs from other visa programs because it places no emphasis on employer or family sponsorship from within the United States but uses a lottery system to allocate visas.
Since 1995, more than half a million immigrants from countries with low rates of immigration have become legal permanent residents of the United States through the program.
"The State Department must do more to prevent fraud among diversity visa applicants, and the Department of Homeland Security must follow up with individuals after they are here in the United States," Thompson said in a statement to Cybercast News Service .
"America can and should continue to welcome newcomers who follow our laws and contribute to our society, but we must always do it in a way that puts security first," Thompson added.
Rep. Tom Tancredo (R.-Colo.), a Republican presidential candidate, called for terminating the program.
"The recent GAO report on the Diversity Visa Program simply confirms what many of us have known for a long time," he told CNSNews.com.
"The Visa Lottery is susceptible to fraud and abuse and provides an avenue into the United States for would-be terrorists and other dangerous aliens. We need to stop gambling with our national security and shut down this lottery program immediately."
The legislation creating the Diversity Visa Program was signed by President George H.W. Bush in 1990. The program is designed to increase immigration to the United States from countries with low rates of immigration.
The GAO report is not the first to point to problems in the program. In 2003, the State Department's Office of Inspector General pointed to "pervasive fraud" in the program and at the "risk inherent in allowing aliens from countries designated as state sponsors of terror" to enter the United States.
The IG report suggested that the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs ask Congress to pass legislation barring immigrants from terror-sponsoring states from participating in the program.
However, the bureau expressed concerns that such a policy would harm immigrants who are trying to flee from oppressive regimes, the GAO report said.
A State Department spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.
However, the GAO probe did reference written comments from the State Department that disagreed with the GAO's findings and recommendations.
The State Department, for example, told the GAO the findings didn't give the department enough credit for steps taken to prevent fraud and said the GAO pointed to management failures that did not exist. Further, the State Department conceded the visa program faces fraud challenges but said "there are limits to what the department can do."
None of the officials at the 11 consular posts reviewed by the GAO considered the DV program to be specifically targeted by terrorists, but a few said "difficulties in verifying visa applicants' identity could have security implications."
Consular officers screen all visa applications for security concerns. But a diversity visa "applicant with no previous record in U.S. government agency databases or an applicant who is using a false identity may not be detected as a potential security concern," the report said.
"A 2002 cable from the U.S. embassy in Dhaka (Bangladesh) stated 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 United States with legal status," the report continued.
The GAO further said, "State does not have a strategy to address the pervasive fraud reported by some posts. ... While State believes some legislative changes could mitigate fraud in the DV program, it has not made any formal proposals to this effect.
"Further, it has not compiled comprehensive data on DV program outcomes and on detected and suspected fraud activity in the program, which would help decision makers consider whether legislative changes are needed," the GAO added.