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February 27, 2014

Fraud Prevention Tools in Immigration System Should Be Strengthened without Adding Unnecessary Burden

A piece in Saturday’s The New York Times details the appalling conduct that led to high-profile indictments in December 2012 against more than 30 lawyers, paralegals, and interpreters who prepared hundreds of fraudulent asylum applications for Chinese immigrants.  But the piece, “Asylum Fraud in Chinatown: An Industry of Lies,” does not present a complete picture of the U.S. asylum system—the system that we see day in and day out in our pro bono representation of asylum seekers. 

Fraud hurts legitimate asylum applicants, so steps to address it are critical.  Two weeks ago, I testified before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security.  At that hearing, members of Congress had serious questions about tools for detecting asylum fraud.  As I detailed in my testimony, the U.S. government has significantly strengthened its tools for addressing  fraud in recent years.  The tools include: fraud detention training for asylum adjudicators, enhanced background biographical and biometric checks with multiple government agencies, additional fraud detection and investigation capacities, and stepped up referral of cases for criminal prosecution. 

Another key step in combatting fraud is to increase the number of immigration judges and asylum adjudicators. The delays and backlogs that plague our immigration court system can be a magnet for fraud.  As of January 2014, a backlog of 323,725 immigration court removal cases have been waiting for 550 days for their immigration court hearings and will “wait considerably longer,” according to the latest Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) report.

High profile prosecutions, like the one profiled in The New York Times, are crucial tools for deterring fraud. In recent years, other people have been convicted in significant cases, including:  a Maryland attorney and his associate who conspired to prepare false asylum applications; three California immigration attorneys and their associates who prepared fraudulent asylum claims on behalf of nationals from Romania and India; a Philadelphia man convicted in connection with the filing of fraudulent asylum claims on behalf of clients from Russia, Ukraine, and Poland; and a Texas immigration attorney who filed false asylum claims on behalf of Chinese nationals. The New York Chinatown indictments from 2012 are a major turning point, and are already having an impact.        

Through our pro bono refugee representation program, volunteer lawyers at many of the nation’s leading law firms have represented thousands of people with legitimate asylum claims. Even with top quality representation, our clients face many difficulties in navigating the complex asylum system.  Their requests for asylum are often denied or delayed due to arbitrary filing deadlines, overly broad inadmissibility bars, or requirements for documentation that are sometimes unrealistic or irrelevant.  Many of these barriers are the result of changes to the law motivated by a desire to weed out fraud.  While our pro bono lawyers persevere and generally win their asylum cases, the process is hardly an easy one.  

As reform efforts move forward, government officials and lawmakers should make sure that any additional proposals for addressing abuse focus on tools that actually detect fraud, rather than on sweeping changes that block legitimate asylum seekers.   This country must preserve the integrity of its asylum system.  U.S. immigration authorities have the legal and policy mechanisms necessary to combat abuse. These should continue to be enhanced and strengthened, and steps should be taken to address the lack of staffing and delays in the immigration courts.