The new "Document and Benefit Fraud Task Forces" will be located in Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, Newark, N.J.; Philadelphia and St. Paul. The 10 new task forces build upon the success of an existing document and benefit fraud task force in the Washington, D.C./northern Virginia area.
Led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the task forces build on existing partnerships to bring investigators together from a variety of agencies with expertise in different aspects of document and benefit fraud. These agents will partner with U.S. Attorney's Offices to formulate a comprehensive approach in targeting criminal organizations behind these schemes as well as the ineligible beneficiaries of such fraud. Any case where a sufficient nexus to terrorism is discovered will be referred to the Joint Terrorism Task Forces.
The task forces will primarily target two types of crimes:
Document fraud - This crime refers to the manufacture, sale or use of counterfeit identity documents – such as fake driver's licenses, birth certificates, social security cards or passports – for immigration fraud or other criminal activity. Document fraud also involves efforts to obtain genuine identity documents through fraudulent means. These activities have helped illegal aliens, criminals and even terrorists evade detection and embed themselves in our society. Document fraud often supports the crime of benefit fraud.
The threat posed by document fraud is exemplified by the fact that at least seven of the 9/11 hijackers obtained genuine Virginia identity documents by submitting fraudulent Virginia residency certificates. Using these ID cards, the hijackers were able to clear airport security and board aircraft for the attacks.
Benefit fraud - This crime refers to the misrepresentation or omission of material fact on an application to obtain an immigration benefit one is not entitled to – such as U.S. citizenship, political asylum or a valid visa. Because these benefits give one the ability to freely enter, work, or reside in this country, they are prized by illegal aliens, criminals and terrorists who may be willing to pay substantial fees for them. As a result, the criminal organizations that help individuals fraudulently obtain immigration benefits reap enormous profits.
Among those who have benefited from this type of fraud is Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing who engaged in asylum fraud to enter this country. Every year, tens of thousands of applications for immigration benefits are denied because of fraud. One recent audit estimated that as many as 33 percent of applications for one particular category of visa were fraudulent.
"One of lessons from 9/11 is that false identities and fraudulent documents present serious risks to national security," said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. "President Bush has directed the creation of these task forces to play a vital role in the fight against terrorists, human traffickers and immigration violators. We must deny criminals the identification tools they need to threaten our country, cross our borders illegally and violate our immigration laws without detection."
ICE Assistant Secretary Myers stated, "These new task forces are badly needed to help combat the significant threats posed by document and benefit fraud schemes. By harnessing the expertise of numerous agencies in coordinated task forces across the country, we believe we can reverse the alarming growth and sophistication of these crimes."
Deputy Attorney General McNulty noted that document fraud is a serious problem and is the common element of many different crimes. The Task Forces "will help restore the integrity of our immigration system and will help close the loopholes that terrorists and other criminals exploit to enter and remain in the United States by fraud," he said.
USCIS Director Gonzalez said, "We can never lose sight of the fact that legal immigration to the United States is a highly-valued privilege. We must do everything in our collective powers to maintain the trust we've been given to safeguard that most precious of gifts."
Over the past 2 years, the number of document and benefit fraud investigations launched by ICE has increased from 2,334 in FY 2004 to 3,591 in FY 2005. Criminal indictments in these cases have increased from 767 to 875, while arrests have risen from 1,300 to 1,391 and convictions have increased from 559 to 992.
At the same time, the sophistication of these schemes has increased with new technology. In the past, the tools of the counterfeit document trade were typewriters and pieces of plastic. Today, document forgers are using computer software and high-resolution digital scanners to ply their trade. Criminal organizations are also using the Internet more frequently to market fake documents and immigration benefits to customers.
In addition, investigators are finding large-scale criminal organizations involved in these schemes. In one case in Denver, ICE agents discovered that members of the Mexico-based Castorena family counterfeit document organization controlled cells in at least 33 U.S. states. The cell "heads" paid as much as $15,000 per month to leaders of the Castorena organization for the right to operate fake document "franchises" in each U.S. city. Counterfeit documents manufactured by this single criminal organization have been found in all 50 states.
Investigations also have revealed that violators in many benefit fraud schemes are often professional attorneys, immigration consultants and executives drawn by the profits they can reap from a desperate clientele. Yesterday, ICE agents arrested the operator of a Bronx non-profit organization who allegedly made some $1 million by filing 1,300 bogus benefit applications for illegal aliens for a fee. In January, ICE seized $5.7 million from a New Jersey man who created shell companies to file some 1,000 bogus labor petitions on behalf of Pakistani and Indian aliens seeking to enter or remain in this country. In December, a Washington D.C. law firm pleaded guilty to submitting fraudulent labor certifications for more than 100 illegal aliens.