Border Security:

Fraud Risks Complicate State's Ability to Manage Diversity Visa Program

GAO-07-1174: Published: Sep 21, 2007. Publicly Released: Sep 21, 2007.

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Diversity visas provide an immigration opportunity to aliens from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States. Diversity visa applicants must apply online, be selected by lottery, be interviewed, and be determined to be eligible before obtaining a diversity visa. GAO was asked to review (1) the extent to which the Diversity Visa Program (DV program) is diversifying the U.S. immigrant pool, (2) areas of the DV program that are vulnerable to fraud, (3) whether there are security implications associated with these vulnerabilities, and (4) what steps the Department of State (State) has taken to address the vulnerabilities. We reviewed laws, regulations, and other documentation, and interviewed numerous State officials both at headquarters and in the field.

The DV program is contributing to the diversity of U.S. immigrants; more than 500,000 aliens from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States have become legal permanent residents through the program. Little is known about diversity immigrants once they enter the United States, such as whether they contribute to further diversity by petitioning for family members to immigrate. The DV program is vulnerable to fraud committed by and against DV applicants, but State has not compiled comprehensive data on detected and suspected fraudulent activity. At 5 of the posts we reviewed, consular officers reported that the majority of DV applicants, lacking access to a computer or internet savvy, use "visa agents" to enter the lottery. Some agents take advantage of DV applicants: visa agents in Bangladesh have intercepted applicants' program documents and charged ransoms of up to $20,000 or coerced applicants into sham DV marriages. Consular officers at 6 of the 11 posts we reviewed reported that widespread use of fake documents, such as birth certificates, marriage certificates, and passports, presented challenges when verifying the identities of applicants and dependents. Difficulty in verifying identities has security implications because State's security checks rely heavily on name-based databases. In 2003, State's Inspector General raised concerns that aliens from countries designated as state sponsors of terrorism can apply for diversity visas. Nearly 9,800 persons from these countries have obtained permanent residency in the United States through the program. We found no documented evidence that DV immigrants from these, or other, countries posed a terrorist or other threat. However, experts familiar with immigration fraud believe that some individuals, including terrorists and criminals, could use fraudulent means to enter or remain in the United States. This places a premium on mitigating fraud risks. Despite taking steps to strengthen the DV program, State does not have a strategy to address the pervasive fraud reported by some posts. State believes that some legislative changes could mitigate fraud risks, but it has not made formal proposals for change and has not compiled data on program outcomes and fraud trends which would help decision makers consider whether legislative changes are needed.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to GAO?s recommendation, State has taken action to increase the data it is collecting in the Diversity Visa application process, and is using visa refusal rates to position its fraud prevention resources.

    Recommendation: To strengthen its management of the DV program, the Department of State should compile more comprehensive data on the DV program, including information on (1) detected or suspected fraud, including data on "pop-up" spouses, third party involvement, and identity and document fraud; and (2) the amount of fraud prevention resources being spent on DV investigations.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2010, GAO met with State Department officials to discuss State's implementation of these recommendations. In November 2009, State made legislative proposals to 1) end the Diversity Visa (DV) program entirely and 2) amend the program to require a college degree for applicants, thus making it less susceptible to fraud. State made direct reference to our report in its analysis of the second legislative proposal. Concerning fraud resources, State officials told us in they increased the number of Assistant Regional Security Officers for Investigations (ARSO-I) around the world to help investigate visa fraud, including an additional 25 posts in FY2009. Concerning operational improvements, State officials told us the Kentucky Consular Center (KCC) has made improvements to its part of the DV processing, including posting all DV forms online and using data mining to search for anomalies in applications. State discussed these planned improvements in the April 2009 update of its initial response to our report. In January 2009, State also enhanced it fraud notices to consular posts abroad.

    Recommendation: To strengthen its management of the DV program, the Department of State should use collected data to formulate a strategy to combat fraud in the DV program. This strategy should include: (1) proposals for legislative changes, if deemed necessary to mitigate fraud risks; (2) consideration of appropriate fraud prevention resources at each DV-issuing post; and (3) operational improvements to strengthen the program, including making the notification process less vulnerable to interception by third parties and exploring the feasibility of certifying some visa agents or partnering with nongovernmental entities to assist applicants with entering the lottery.

    Agency Affected: Department of State


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