When immigration authorities broke up a clever scheme last year that allowed scores of foreigners from Latin America to easily claim legal U.S. residence and obtain a “green card,” the feds immediately focused attention on one key document: the Cuban birth certificate.
Investigators had found that fraudulent birth certificates were being sold to dozens of foreign nationals by a Kissimmee man who pretended to be a high-ranking immigration official.
A group, led by ringleader Fidel Morejón, 41, sold the fake Cuban birth certificates to about 50 undocumented immigrants, bringing in more than $500,000. Morejón used elaborate tactics to ensure that his clients persuaded immigration officials that they were really Cubans, even coaching them on what to say.
A Cuban birth certificate is a valuable document because undocumented Cuban nationals can be paroled into the United States and apply for a green card after more than a year in the country under the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966.
The arrest and prosecution of the Cuba-born Morejón and his counterfeit birth certificate ring prompted federal immigration authorities to step up scrutiny of permanent U.S. residency applications. Up until the fraud case, most Cuban applicants could file their applications and receive their green cards — all by mail.
Now, immigration officials are scheduling more face-to-face interviews with applicants whose paperwork raises red flags, spending more on overtime checking documents and backgrounds and sending teams around the country to train other officials on how to spot fraudulent documents.
Miami U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services District Director Linda Swacina confirmed that her agency — in partnership with other federal agencies — has implemented stricter measures to detect fraudulent applications and refer those to investigators and prosecutors.
“Every application is getting more scrutiny,” she said. “We’ve been around for 10 years now as Department of Homeland Security and we’re continuing to learn and we’re continuing to develop stronger fraud detection methods to be able to identify the patterns better. We want to get the word out that we’re looking very closely and we’re a lot better at finding [fraud] than we used to be.”
A fraud detection and national security directorate, in place for several years, has enabled USCIS to more efficiently detect fraudulent documents. The recent discovery of Morejón’s ring of counterfeiters turned out to be one of the unit’s biggest catches.
Morejón began his counterfeit birth certificate ring in 2009, selling the fake documents to Argentines, Colombians, Costa Ricans, Mexicans, Peruvians, Salvadorans and Venezuelans — all of whom were already in the United States without papers. Each paid on average $10,000 to $15,000 per certificate.
Here’s how the scheme worked, according to federal court records.
Morejón would take some foreign nationals to the Florida Keys and leave them there to pose as newly arrived rafters from Cuba. When immigration officials picked them up, he told them to say they were Cuban and advised them to know every detail of their birth certificate.
“So, if I tell you: ‘Where were you born?’ At this moment you have your [birth certificate]. Where were you born?” asks Morejón, according to a transcript of one secretly recorded tape.
“I was born in Havana … no, in Guinness, Guinness, Cuba,” replied the migrant referring to the town of Guines, 30 miles southeast of Havana.
Morejón also advised migrants not to talk too much while in the custody of immigration authorities apparently to avoid detection of their non-Cuban accents.
On Jan. 28, U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga sentenced Morejón to 33 months in prison and three years of supervised release.
A USCIS official, Carlton P. Ayoung, chief of fraud detection and national security directorate for Miami and the Caribbean District, said his agency worked in partnership with other agencies to bust Morejón and his co-conspirators.
Ayoung and Swacina said the other partners included Homeland Security Investigations, a unit of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility and the U.S. attorney’s office in Miami.
It was at Morejon’s sentencing in Miami federal court that the first details emerged about USCIS’ increased efforts to detect fraud.
Lorraine Tashman, an assistant U.S. attorney, listed all the measures that immigration authorities, specifically USCIS, have taken, as a way to persuade Altonaga to impose a tougher sentence on Morejón.
“CIS has invested a lot of resources investigating this case,” Tashman said. “They’ve spent over $25,000 in local overtime hours, travel to other districts to train other officers on how to detect Cuban birth certificate fraud of over $10,000 and I think the most significant impact on the government function is the fact that they have now chosen largely due to Mr. [Morejón’s] actions to change the way they do business with respect to Cuban Adjustment applications.
“All these cases that are filed with the service center are going to be referred to the district office for local adjudication with an interview. In South Florida alone, every year there’s over 25,000 applicants for Cuban adjustment. All of those are going to be sent to the local office now.”
In an interview, Swacina confirmed that her district office is scrutinizing all applications, including Cuban petitions, more thoroughly — but noted that her office summoned applicants for interviews and more questioning if fraud signs are detected.
“There has to be some sort of fraud indicator,” Swacina said.
She also noted that her agency has deployed teams to district offices in other parts of the country to train officials on fraud detection methods.