Immigration lawyers and scholars say scams to game the asylum and visa lottery systems of the United States are clouding the process and hurting legitimate applicants. The trend is affecting Africans in particular.
Last year, when Guinean national Nafissatou Diallo accused former International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault in a New York hotel, the controversial case also brought renewed attention to asylum scams.
While Diallo’s past was examined, questions were raised over whether or not she had lied on her 2003 asylum application as a strategy to win permanent residence in the U.S.
Whatever the facts of her own case, scholars say the problem has been growing as more and more impoverished Africans try all means possible to gain entry into the United States in a bid to fulfill dreams of economic accomplishment.
But lawyers, like California-based Jonathan Montag, say the high number of attempted scams has made it much more difficult for legitimate asylum seekers fleeing persecution.
“We have an asylum system that tries to be fair and analyzes everybody’s situation, but because of the amount of fraud, burdens of proof are placed on asylum applicants that are often very hard for them to meet, so valid asylum claimants lose because they cannot provide the evidence that is now required,” he said.
Montag said current priorities seem to be for the asylum process to be quicker rather than fairer.
He said it is now set up as a demanding document-based system with an adversarial type of interview at the finish.
"People, who it is obvious to me, have undergone very traumatic persecution are denied because of minor omissions, or confusion, or nervousness in a stressful situation and ultimately they face having to go back to their countries and being killed because they had a bad day of performance,” said Montag.
Common scams include exaggerating claims and obtaining fake documents, some of them sold by corrupt government or political party officials in the home country.
Even legitimate applicants are sometimes pressured by others to improve their chances with fabricated stories and documents.
Jason Dzubow, a Washington-based immigration attorney, who also writes a blog called The Asylumist, says fraudsters from immigrant communities looking for payouts are behind many of the scams.
“The source of the problem depends on the communities. So to me, one of the solutions to the problem is to find the people who are perpetrating the fraud and arrest them,” said Dzubow.
In recent years, according to the Department of Homeland Security, the total number of persons granted asylum in the United States has been slightly above 20,000 per year.
Asylum is granted to people already in the United States if they are found to be fleeing persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.
Those seeking refugee status apply from outside the country. Refugee scams include people with fake identities pretending they are displaced civil war refugees, even if they do not come from the country in conflict.
The U.S. Diversity Immigrant Visa program, commonly known as the Green Card Lottery, also is prone to scams.
Entering is free, but for some winners, the cost of the follow-up interview, along with payments needed to get medical records and to translate documents can be beyond their means.
Charles Piot, a professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University, is working on a book studying trends surrounding the U.S. lottery in Togo.
He said there is a rag-tag group of entrepreneurs who make money off the program, including arranging fake marriages so a lottery winner can pay for the subsequent interview fee and other costs.
“The attempt to say arrange a marriage is simply a way to finance their getting selected,” said Piot.
Sometimes the arranged marriage also comes with children and other relatives so they can also gain entry into the United States.
But Piot said because of increased awareness of these types of scams, the situation can quickly backfire for the original lottery winner.
“It is absolutely heart rending, especially when you see folks who were selected, who had no other choice, and they go to the embassy and they do not get through the interview. Their dreams are dashed. I know a young woman who was denied just a few months ago and she was just absolutely crushed. She had for several months the sort of uplift and fantasy, that she would come to the U.S., and this is her future, and all that is gone now because she failed the interview.”
The lottery makes available 50,000 permanent resident visas annually to people from countries deemed to have low rates of immigration to the United States.
According to recent statistics, some African countries have very high fraud levels. More than half of the entries from Sudan, Ghana and Ethiopia are estimated to be illegitimate and are disqualified during the selection process, while more than eight out of 10 from Nigeria are reported to be thrown out.