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Visa-fraud prosecutions across U.S. increase

On June 7, Luis Barrera arrived at Miami International Airport aboard a flight from Caracas. He was arrested soon after presenting to Customs and Border Protection officers a Venezuelan passport containing a U.S. visa obtained at a U.S. consulate in Venezuela.

Barrera was charged with visa fraud, not because his visa was fake — but because he had used it again after illegally overstaying his allotted time twice before.

Barrera was only one in a long string of foreign nationals arrested at MIA and other airports around the country on visa charges in the last year.

One common denominator in many of these cases is that the defendants have previously overstayed their visas, entered the United States illegally or been deported.

Another commonality is that the travelers have been discovered by CBP officers on arrival in the United States, not by State Department consuls when they apply for visas abroad.

While it would seem consuls are issuing visas to foreign nationals who are not entitled to them, U.S. officials say the consuls are doing their job properly.

Consuls generally issue five- and 10-year visas to foreign travelers who apply for them. But these visas are not a guarantee that the travelers will be automatically admitted into the United States. That decision rests with CBP passport control officers who generally grant six-month stays to travelers with the long-term visas issued by consuls. If the traveler leaves the United States before the authorized time expires, then he can use the long-term visa again. If there is an overstay, he could be denied entry or arrested if fraud is detected.

A State Department official explained that foreign nationals with genuine visas who are denied entry because of prior transgressions generally carry visas good for five or 10 years.

These visas are issued for multiple entries into the United States with the understanding that visitors must leave the country at the end of their authorized time. If they overstay, the visa becomes invalid when they try to return.

On arrival, CBP generally gives a foreign visitor six months to stay in the United States. But if these visitors overstay their allotted time, consuls would only become aware of the violation when the foreign national tries to renew the long-term visa, the official said.

Thus, CBP officers are the ones who discover the violations when the foreign visitors attempt to return to the United States using the same long-term visa.

Fraud cases in Miami federal court do not indicate whether the foreign visitors arrested carried long-term visas.

But in the case of Barrera, who was arrested June 7, a CBP investigator said the defendant added false entry stamps to his passport showing he had returned to Venezuela from the United States before his visa time expired.

By examining these stamps closely, CBP investigators concluded Barrera had overstayed twice — once in 2007 and again in 2009.

“During secondary interview, the defendant admitted that he had overstayed two entries and obtained the backdated stamps to conceal his overstays in the United States,” the CBP investigator said in an affidavit.

Barrera’s attorney could not be reached for comment.

Other cases, however, clearly leave the impression that foreign visitors obtained their visas by lying to a consul who did not immediately discover a prior overstay.

For example, Danielle Cristina Rodrigues dos Santos, who arrived at MIA on June 9 on a flight from Belo Horizonte, Brazil, was arrested after admitting to CBP that she lied on her visa application to conceal a prior 10-year overstay. Rodrigues’ attorney declined to comment on the case.

A State Department official said U.S. consuls abroad do not accept a visa applicant’s claims without verification. But the official indicated that in some cases the information to verify an applicant’s statements is not readily available.

“Even as we welcome increasing numbers of travelers to our shores, security remains our highest priority,” the State Department official said. “We take our role in protecting our borders very seriously, and we believe that every visa decision is a national security decision.”

Another issue that may make it difficult for U.S. immigration officials to quickly discover overstays is the lack of departure control at airports and borders.

U.S. passport control officers do not examine the documents of departing international passengers. At airports, airline personnel are expected to retrieve arrival forms from departing foreign visitors.

The bipartisan immigration bill the Senate passed June 26 would mandate the creation of a system to track the departure of foreign nationals by air and sea. The bill would also seek to improve methods to detect visa overstays.

Dozens of visa fraud cases have appeared on magistrate dockets in Miami federal court over the past year and a university research center that tracks immigration law violations shows an increase in visa fraud prosecutions around the country.

A report released in April by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) showed that visa fraud criminal prosecutions now rank third among the top 10 immigration law prosecutions in the country.

Also, a Government Accountability Office report issued in September said the State Department screens visa applicants for fraud.

But GAO auditors found that consulates do not systematically employ methods to prevent fraud.

“State has a variety of technological tools and resources to assist consular officers in combating fraud, but does not have a policy for their systematic use,” the GAO report said.

In response, the State Department said it generally agreed with GAO findings and would implement recommendations to improve fraud tracking .

The GAO report said the top 10 countries where visa fraud occurs are China, Dominican Republic, Mexico, India, Brazil, Ghana, Cambodia, Jamaica, Peru and Ukraine