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The Religious Worker Visa
Among the specific requirements of obtaining a religious worker visa is the filing of an application from a primary religious organization — such as a mosque — to certify that the applicant:
a) is a minister, or professional or other religious worker;
b) is in the United States solely to engage in a religious vocation or to work for a bona fide United States religious organization;
c) has been a member in the sponsoring religious organization’s denomination continually for two years; and
d) has received a job offer as a religious worker and will not be working in any secular
From 1999 to 2004, about 106,000 people were admitted to the United States using visas for "religious workers." Since 9/11, the number of these admissions has continued to increase. Between 1992 and 1998, there were about 42,000 such admissions. The largest number were foreign nationals from Mexico (5,198), India (4,666), Canada (4,357), and Britain (3,393). Immigration authorities do not maintain statistics for admissions by religion. However, in the past three years, records indicate that more than 1,000 holders of religious worker visas from predominantly Muslim countries were granted admission; topping the list for these countries were Egypt (270), Indonesia (173), and Pakistan (113).199
A source inside U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services told me while I was working on the 9/11 Commission in 2003 that religious worker visa fraud was known to be extremely problematic, in part because there is little vetting of either the religious institutions that sponsor the visa applicants, nor rules in place that can verify the authenticity of the applicant. Even in 2000, fraud in the religious worker authorizations was a known problem. In that year, in a hearing before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims in 2000, Chairman Lamar Smith remarked in his opening statement:
In 1997, the State Department’s Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs wrote to me that the Department has: ‘’uncovered a troubling number of scams, both individual and organized, seeking to exploit this category to obtain immigration benefits illegally . . .. Most problematic are those cases that involve organized fraud rings in which documents of religious institutions in the U.S. are fabricated, or when the applicant colludes with a member of a religious institution in the U.S. to misrepresent either his or her qualifications, or the position to which the applicant is destined. The American Embassy in Moscow discovered a fraud ring in New York which fabricated documentation of several religious denominations in New York City on behalf of applicants who had no religious training and no intention of taking up religious occupations in the U.S. Several consular offices have reported suspicions that some churches in the U.S. have created fictitious positions solely to help an alien procure an immigration benefit.’’
Then ranking subcommittee member Melvin Watt and I asked the General Accounting Office to conduct a study to determine the extent of fraud in the program. In order to provide assistance to the GAO, the State Department conducted a field inquiry to obtain the views of consular offices as to the level and type of fraud. Almost half of the responding posts that had issued a substantial number of religious worker visas reported experiencing fraud and abuse.
The GAO report concluded that ‘’both INS and State have expressed concern about fraud in the religious worker visa program. . . .’’ The report stated that INS and State Department officials were not confident that the agencies’ screening processes were identifying all unqualified applicants and sponsoring organizations.200
More specifically, the GAO said in a 1999 report on religious worker visa fraud that:
They (the INS) do not have data or analysis to firmly establish the extent of fraud in the religious worker visa program. The nature of the fraud uncovered typically involved (1) applicants making false statements about their qualifications as religious workers or their exact plans in the United States or (2) conspiracy between an applicant and a sponsoring organization to misrepresent material facts about the applicant’s qualifications or the nature of the position to be filled.201
The problem of religious worker fraud is a mere subset of the fraud that has traditionally run rampant throughout the immigration benefits system. In the student visa arena as well, phony academic institutions—often under the guise of technical, vocational, or English-language schools — provide false cover for those seeking to come to the United States illegally. Due to the lack of adequate rules and enforcement, fraud thrives in the application process and is aided during the application review process by a lack of inadequate information and biometrically based technologies.
Religious Worker Fraud in Brooklyn
Muhammad Khalil was the imam and director of the Dar Ehya Essunnah mosque, located in a Brooklyn basement. Khalil was never charged with terrorism offenses. However, investigators said that he incited others to jihad, associating himself with Al Qaeda and bin Ladin and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. He urged Muslims living in the United States to arm, and stated, "Hopefully, another attack in the United States will come shortly."202 According to a source who lived at the mosque in July 2000, the premises were filthy and cockroach-infested with poor sanitary conditions.203 Few people came there to pray.204
Since 1993, Khalil had used his position as director of a mosque to sponsor more than 200 applications for aliens seeking to obtain immigrant and nonimmigrant religious worker visas through the INS’s religious worker program. According to his indictment, Khalil told the federal agents at INS offices in New York "that each applicant gave a donation to the Mosque—the usual fee was $20, but some applicants gave thousands of dollars."205 In November 2001, a witness ("W-1") in custody on immigration charges informed the agents interviewing him that "Muhammad Khalil . . . was the director of the Mosque, where W-1 had been living. W-1 stated that he paid Khalil $5,000 to $6,000 to sponsor W-1 under the INS Religious Worker program. . . . W-1 said that he saw non-religious workers pay Khalil $5,000 to $6,000 to file Religious Worker applications for them."206
A cooperating witness described a sting he helped perform against Khalil on August 9, 2002. Under the supervision of the INS, he gave Khalil $3,800 as a down payment for an application to obtain a religious work visa. The indictment accused Khalil of "falsely stat[ing] to federal agents that all of the individuals whom he assisted in applying for ‘green cards’ were religious workers who taught the Koran, Islamic history, and Arabic language."207
Khalil was also charged with fraudulently obtaining legitimate Social Security cards (for which he charged $2,300) and making false statements to law enforcement officials. He had forged driver’s licenses and undergraduate (B.A.) degrees as well. The mosque’s operations ceased soon after Khalil was arrested in February 2003. In September 2004, a New York court convicted Khalil of all counts.208
Recently, an imam at a Lodi, California, mosque, Shabbir Ahmed, was charged with overstaying his three-year religious worker visa. Authorities said the arrest came as part of a long-term counterterrorism investigation. Another Muslim cleric, Muhammed Adil Khan, 47, and his son Muhammed Hassan Adil, 19, were also picked up in a sweep to crack down on foreign nationals who are overstaying these types of visas.209
Terrorists Who Abused the Religious Worker Visa
• Omar Mohamed. Worked for GRF, al Haramain. Failed to work for religious institution that sponsored him and obtained LPR status; lied on naturalization210 application.
• Shabbir Ahmed. Lodi mosque former imam acting as liaison for Al Qaeda. Arrested 6/05 for violating the terms of his visa. Held without bond 8/05.211
• Mohammad Adil Khan. Lodi mosque imam. Agreed to be deported to Pakistan upon arrest.212
About 50,000 to 75,000 asylum cases are filed annually. In May 2005, Congress passed The REAL ID Act. It includes provisions dealing with key aspects of U.S. asylum law. The law narrowly reforms our asylum procedures to better ensure that all courts better scrutinize asylum claims so that legitimate claims survive and fraudulent claims get thrown out. In 9/11 and Terrorist Travel, we discussed in some depth that terrorists like 1993 World Trade Center mastermind Ramzi Yousef (whose uncle is KSM) used political asylum claims effectively to get in and stay in the United States. Even with the revision of the law, immigration personnel who deal with asylum applicants must remain cognizant that those who claim political persecution in a country that the United States considers a high national security risk should receive extra scrutiny.
There are a few reasons why these claims are an excellent choice for terrorists. First, the claim itself keeps the applicant from a potential automatic removal or detention. Second, if an applicant for asylum (whether at a port of entry, a hard border, or in a court room) does not appear to pose a threat to public safety, the lack of detention space usually means the applicant is free to move about the United States. Third, often the only information available to a judge is the word of the applicant without corroborating evidence, so fraudulent claims are easily made by those motivated to make them. For all of these reasons, political asylum claims usually permit terrorists to do what they seek: buy time to live here freely.
On June 14, 2004, Nuradin Abdi was indicted in Columbus, Ohio, on four counts, including conspiracy to provide material support to al Qaeda.213 In 1999, Abdi had applied for and received asylum. Abdi was allegedly involved in a plot with the admitted al Qaeda member Iyman Faris214 to blow up a Columbus shopping mall. In addition, Abdi allegedly received bomb-making instructions from a co-conspirator and had intended to travel to Ethiopia to receive training in guns, guerrilla warfare, and bombs at a military-style training camp.215 Federal investigators believe that the plot may have involved as many as five people.216 The three other men, unnamed, were truck drivers with Faris.217
Sixteen other instances of political asylum being used to either prevent removal or deportation are as follows:
• Kamran Sheikh Akhtar was detained in Charlotte, North Carolina while videotaping buildings there in July 2004. He entered the United States illegally through Mexico in December 1991 and claimed political asylum in 1992. Five years later, in 1997, the asylum request was denied. A month later, he sought to resist removal by filing for residency based on marriage to an American. In March 1998, he is found by an immigration judge to be removable and is given voluntary departure, but a month later the marriage petition secures a permanent residency.218
• Abdul Halim Hassan Al-Ashqar came to the United States on a student visa in 1989. He had received a scholarship through the U.S. government from the Thomas Jefferson Center "in order to complete my higher education in Business Administration" 219 at the University of Mississippi. He was able to do so despite the fact that he had co-founded a university on the West Bank with Abu Marzook (eventually deported for his role as U.S. leader of Hamas) and Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. He had run public relations at that university for eight years prior to coming to the United States. Once in the United States, Al-Ashqar overstayed his visa and continued working for Hamas in a variety of functions.220 He was imprisoned for refusing to testify about Abu Marzook during a grand jury investigation.221 Al-Ashqar was then placed in deportation hearings himself, but claimed political asylum. The asylum claim was denied, but he fought that denial for six years in U.S. courts. In 2004, he agreed to voluntarily depart, but was instead indicted on RICO charges for running Hamas in the United States with Marzook.222 In January 2005 announced he was an independent candidate for president of the Palestinian Authority.223
• Hesham Hedayet, who killed airline personnel at LAX on July 4, 2002, filed for political asylum in 1992 but ended up acquiring legal status through a diversity immigration lottery.224
• Rabih Haddad, a Lebanese citizen and a co-founder and chairman of the Global Relief Foundation (GRF), was arrested on December 14, 2001, the same day that its offices were raided.225 GRF’s assets were frozen by the U.S. Treasury Department on December 14, 2001, for financially supporting al Qaeda.226 Also on December 14, 2001, the government detained Haddad on a visa violation. Haddad was originally admitted to the United States in 1998 with the status of a non-immigrant visitor. His visa expired on August 31, 1999.227 Haddad was ordered deported. Despite a series of appeals and the filing of an application for asylum and withholding of removal,228 in November 2002 an Immigration Judge concluded that he presented "a substantial risk to the national security of the United States."229 Haddad appealed again and was denied again, and on July 14, 2003, Haddad was deported to Lebanon.230 After his deportation, the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a press release that reiterated GRF’s ties to Wadi El-Hage and stated again that GRF was a Specially Designated Global Terrorist.231
• At least three people closely associated with the September 11 hijackers claimed political asylum, one that helped them obtain Virginia identification cards, and two other "friends."
• Malek Mohamed Seif, a friend of 9/11 hijacker Hanjour filed a false application for asylum and was indicted for social security, mail, and immigration fraud.232
• Eyad Mohammed Mohammed Mustafa helped 9/11 hijackers (unknowingly) to obtain VA ID cards. He made a false claim of asylum during deportation in Ocober 2002. The application was denied and he was deported to
• Mohdar Abdullah was a friend of two 9/11 hijackers. He claimed political asylum defensively in 2000 after overstaying his visitor’s length of stay by a year and a half. He was charged with fraud in November 2001 and was deported to Yemen in May 2004. Yemen.234
• Abdel Hakim Tizegha, an associate of the LAX Millennium plotters, claimed political asylum based on persecution by Muslim fundamentalists. He said he entered at Boston as a stowaway on an Algerian gas tanker. Hearings were rescheduled five times. The claim was denied two years later, and then appealed. Nine months later his location was unknown.235
• Abu Mezer, responsible for the New York City subway plot in August 1997, was arrested in Washington state in January 1997 after his third attempt to illegally enter the United States. The next month, he applied for political asylum, denying an affiliation with Hamas. In July, he did not show up for his hearing. Instead, he called his attorney and stated he had married a U.S. citizen and was living in Canada. On Aug. 1, 1997, he was arrested in New York City based on an informant’s tip.236
• Muin Mohammad (aka Muin Shabib, Kamel Mohammad Shabib, and Abu Muhammad) is one of the original founders of AAEF and is listed on the group’s 1993 IRS Form 990 as the secretary of the AAEF Executive Committee.237According to an FBI Action Memorandum, Muin Kamel Mohammed Shabib attended the October 1993 Hamas conference in Philadelphia along with Abdelhaleem Al-Ashqar and others.238 And documents submitted by the Department of Justice in HLFRD v. John Ashcroft show that Shabib was identified by the government of Israel as a senior Hamas operative formerly in charge of Hamas’ Central Section (Ramallah-Jerusalem) in the West Bank.239
On March 16, 1994, the FBI in Falls Church, Va., at the home of Yasser Bushnaq, interviewed Shabib. During the interview, Shabib admitted supporting Hamas financially and politically.240 Shabib was interviewed under the pretext of gaining information relating to his immigration status (he had applied for political asylum in December 1993).241
• Faraj Hassan was arrested and charged with naturalization fraud in June 2004 after being granted refugee status from Syria in 1993. He worked for the Benevolence International Foundation that was considered a strong source of funding for Al Qaeda.242
• Three terrorists involved in the Feb. 26, 1993, World Trade Center bombing, Ramzi Yousef, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, and Biblal Alkaisi, all sought political asylum. Yousef, mastermind of the bombing, was initially arrested with fraudulent travel documents upon entry at JFK International Airport in August 1992. Yousef claimed political asylum and was released pending a hearing.243 Alkaisi, also a key witness in the Meir Kahane murder, filed for both "temporary protected status" using a fake birth certificate and fake immigration entry record in August 1991, and for political asylum in May 1992 falsely claiming a prior illegal entry.244 Sheik Rahman, who issued the fatwa for Anwar Sadat’s assassination and was also convicted for his role as the spiritual leader of the 1995 conspiracy to bomb New York City landmarks, had a long history of immigration violations and fraud, including a March 1992 political asylum claim to prevent his pending deportation.245
• Mir Aimal Kansi, who killed two people outside CIA headquarters on Jan. 25, 1993, became an illegal overstay in February 1991. In February 1992, he simultaneously sought both political asylum and amnesty under a 1986 law. While the applications were pending, he was able to obtain a Virginia driver license and work as a courier.246
• Ibrahim Parlak of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party applied for political asylum upon his arrival to the United States in 1991. In 1992, he was granted asylum and LPR status the following year. In October 2004, he was charged with inciting terrorism and providing material support for terrorist activities. He was also charged with lying on his INS applications for failing to disclose his membershipin the Kurdistan Worker’s Party along with his prior aggravated felon record from Turkey.247
The attack of 9/11 was not an isolated instance of al Qaeda infiltration into the United States. In fact, dozens of operatives, mostly before, but also a few after 9/11(other than the 9/11 hijackers) have managed to enter and embed themselves in the United States, actively carrying out plans to commit terrorist acts against U.S. interests or support designated foreign terrorist organizations. For each to do so, they needed the guise of legal immigration status to support them. Al Qaeda has used every viable means of entry. The longer the duration of the permissible length of stay granted by the visa or the adjustment of status to permanent residency or naturalization, the easier the terrorist could travel both within and without the United States. No matter what the terrorist organization or mission, it is clear from this study that terrorists will continue to try to come to the United States to carry out operations, and their instructions will continue to include immigration-related plans. Until we have a system designed to weed out terrorists, their plans on how to stay in the United States will likely succeed.
Those who come to stay and embed themselves into communities throughout the United States will continue to rely on a false guise of legality. Sham marriages and student status that lead to legal permanent residency and an almost certain guarantee of naturalization will likely continue to be some of the most egregious immigration abuses by terrorists. More aggressive culling of applications for national security risks will help prevent terrorists from attaining enhanced immigration status on the front end. However, it must therefore be a prerequisite for any strategy that seeks to attain border security to include the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) in fraud prevention and national security agendas.
Risk management as well as targeting and pattern analysis will help assure that tight resources are used more efficiently to target immigration benefit applications that may pose a national security risk. In addition, law enforcement agencies with criminal jurisdiction, such as the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and FBI-run Joint Terrorism Task Forces, must consider such investigations as priorities. Once it is discovered that a naturalized citizen is a terrorist, denaturalization should be automatically put in motion with a streamlined appeals process that harnesses the talents of both ICE and DOJ legal expertise.
To address fraud effectively, immigration benefits adjudicators must have access to comprehensive, biometrically based immigration histories that include information from the moment an individual first applies for a visa at a U.S. consulate or presents a passport at a port of entry through every subsequent request for an immigration benefit. USCIS needs to have a fully electronic applications process with biometrics embedded into each application and required on site interviews. Adequate human resources will be necessary to fulfill such a mandate while efficiently processing applications. Well-trained fraud specialists should be available at every immigration benefits center with access to the Forensic Document Lab. The practical result is that USCIS should not have to rely solely on fees for upgrading its data systems, technologies, security vetting procedures and other necessary national security tasks. Budgets must be
Also critical are security background checks, with real-time access to federal, state, and local law enforcement information upon request. The more access that is given to the national security or law enforcement information that exists on a foreign national, the less we will need to rely upon unwieldy name-based watchlists. The more security measures the United States incorporates into its own adjudications of immigration benefits before they are granted, the more success the United States will have in rebuffing terrorists who seek to embed here.
Underpinning practical improvements at USCIS must be a commitment to enforce the law with better and more resources. Better resources include clearer guidelines for processing immigration benefits in order to eliminate the arbitrary decision-making that inevitably takes place in their absence. In addition, comprehensive immigration reform must entail, in the long run, not only streamlining the overly complex immigration laws, but also providing sufficient human and technological resources to enforce the law on the border and in USCIS immigration benefits centers.
These recommendations should not be considered in a policy vacuum. Comprehensive immigration reform that includes review of all elements of our immigration security infrastructure (seven fragments dispersed through six agencies) must be vigorously debated and addressed now. However, that does not mean that we should wait to provide sorely needed technological, informational, and human resources to our frontline personnel at U.S. consulates abroad, at our ports of entry, and our borders. Severe deficiencies have existed in these areas for years that must be redressed now; what we still lack are the metrics to determine exactly what measures will provide the best value on tight border budgets. We must find a way to acquire that information to assure our border system provides the value the American people deserve and have the right to demand.
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