By Jonathan Landay and Ted Hesson
WASHINGTON – U.S. authorities pursuing a sweeping fraud investigation suspect some 4,000 Iraqis of filing fraudulent applications for resettlement in the United States as refugees, and they are re-examining cases involving more than 104,000 others, according to State Department reports reviewed by Reuters.
More than 500 Iraqis already admitted as refugees have been implicated in the alleged fraud and could be deported or stripped of their U.S. citizenship, according to one document sent to members of Congress. It said there was “no indication to date that any of these 500+ individuals have ties to terrorism.”
The probe – one of the biggest into refugee program fraud in recent history – is fueling reservations among some in Joe Biden’s administration as they debate whether to create a similar program to assist Afghan refugees as American troops withdraw after 20 years of war, U.S. officials told Reuters.
The reports show the investigation is more far-reaching and serious than U.S. officials have disclosed since announcing in January a 90-day freeze of the Iraqi “Direct Access” refugee program. The suspension, which in April was extended indefinitely by the State Department, followed the unsealing of an indictment accusing three foreign nationals of fraud, records theft and money laundering.
A State Department spokesperson declined to comment on the scope of the investigation and internal government deliberations, but said the fraud scheme did not affect security vetting of refugees.
“The discovery, investigation, and prosecution of individuals involved in the scheme demonstrated the U.S. government’s commitment to ensuring the integrity of the program while upholding our humanitarian tradition,” the spokesperson said. “Those who would seek to take advantage of America’s generosity in welcoming the most vulnerable people will be held accountable.”
The spokesperson did not give a timeline for the investigation, but said the agency would work “as quickly and thoroughly as possible” to complete the review and make any necessary security changes.
Sponsored by the late Senator Edward Kennedy, the “Direct Access” program was authorized by Congress four years into the 2003-2011 U.S. occupation of Iraq and the sectarian bloodletting it unleashed. The program aimed to speed resettlement in the United States of Iraqis endangered by working for the U.S. government.
Under pressure from lawmakers of both parties and advocacy groups, the Biden administration is considering a similar program for Afghans facing Taliban retribution, according to a State Department official, a congressional aide and a lawmaker.
But there “are a lot of reservations” about expediting the resettlement of Afghans as refugees in the United States, said the State Department official, citing the problems with the Iraqi program.
The official, who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, referenced challenges to verifying employment history and other background information “in unstable environments.”
Representative Jason Crow, a former Army Ranger who founded a bipartisan group pressing Biden to evacuate at-risk Afghans, said State Department officials told him the problems with the Iraqi program “have given people pause” about creating one for Afghans.
‘MASTER LIST‘ OF SUSPECTS
The Iraqi program suspension froze the processing of more than 40,000 applications covering more than 104,000 people – 95% of them in Iraq – and all are being re-evaluated, according to one State Department report reviewed by Reuters.
Officials have built a “master list” of “companies and cases with suspected fraud as identified by the investigation,” it said, adding that it includes more than 4,000 individuals, none of whom have been allowed to travel to the United States.
The State Department reports, the unsealed indictment and court documents do not categorically state the alleged scheme’s purpose.
But a State Department investigator’s federal court affidavit suggested applicants were paying for pilfered case files that helped them pass the screening process and consular interviews and “potentially secure admission to the United States … when that would not otherwise have occurred.”
The indictment unsealed in January accused the suspects of stealing the digital case files of more than 1,900 Iraqis, including highly confidential information such as work histories, military service, accounts of persecution, security check results and proposed U.S. consular interview questions.
“Resettlement is a very scarce and valuable and lifesaving commodity,” said Mark Hetfield, president of HIAS, a refugee resettlement agency. “People … are going to do anything they can to access it.”
The program had shortened the process for Iraqi groups “of special humanitarian concern” to obtain U.S. refugee resettlement, dropping a requirement that they first obtain referrals from the United Nations refugee agency.
Eligible applicants include Iraqis inside or outside Iraq in danger because they worked for the U.S. government, as well as certain family members. Iraqis who worked for U.S.-based media outlets and humanitarian groups or organizations that received U.S. government grants or contracts could also apply.
More than 47,570 Iraqis have been resettled in the United States through the program, according to one State Department document.
Admissions slowed to a trickle under Republican former President Donald Trump, who set refugee admissions for this year at a record-low 15,000 before leaving office.
The alleged fraud ran from February 2016 until at least April 2019, according to the indictment. The investigation began in February 2019, a State Department document said.
James Miervaldis of No One Left Behind, a nonprofit that helps U.S.-affiliated Iraqis and Afghans immigrate to the United States, said it is not known how many have been killed, but they number in the hundreds. Most of the threats were from Islamic State remnants and Iran-backed Shiite Muslim militias, he said.
“There are still many Iraqis reaching out to us for help,” Miervaldis said. (This story refiles to correct garbled byline)