There’s a “huge” rate of fraud in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, a former insider warns, and many of the people who are in the DACA program have provided false information in order to escape deportation and remain in the U.S.
As many as half of the approximately 800,000 people who now have work permits under DACA may have lied on their applications to get approved, said Matt O’Brien, an attorney and until last year a manager in the investigative unit of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS).
"Based on what I had seen and what I discussed with my colleagues, the fraud rate is 40 to 50 percent. It's possible that it was higher," he told LifeZette this week.
O'Brien is now the head of research for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a think tank that advocates for a common-sense immigration policy that protects Americans.
"There's a huge rate of fraud in this program," he told LifeZette this week on the subject of DACA.
USCIS employees did quick checks of DACA applications, he said, rather than thorough reviews, "in order to get the DACAs all racked and stacked quickly."
He said immigration officers often found evidence that someone had lied about his DACA qualifications, but that the office of the chief counsel at USCIS almost always dismissed a recommendation to deny an application.
"I would say 98 percent of the time they defaulted to approving them," he said.
The kind of fraud that was often flagged, he noted, involved lying about age.
The DACA program was created by a memo issued by the Department of Homeland Security in June of 2012 under former President Barack Obama. It confers protected legal status on illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. before the age of 16 and either graduated from high school or are enrolled in school or an educational program. If approved, the young adults are issued Social Security numbers and two-year work permits.
One of the eligibility requirements is that a person had to have been present in the country and no more than 30 years old at the time the memo was issued — on June 15, 2012.
On its website, USCIS lists the documents needed to prove that applicants qualify for DACA. But it's not clear that any document is needed to give evidence of age.
O'Brien said it often happened that someone applying for DACA would have several adult children, making it virtually impossible for the person to have been 30 or under in 2012.
In other cases, he said, it appeared that documents were forged, or that non-existent schools were listed.
But these people were almost always approved anyway, said O'Brien, because of the attitude of managers in the field and the chief counsel's office.
"There was so much management pressure to get these things approved," he said.
So much pressure, in fact, that managers at USCIS were telling employees to approve people even if they couldn't prove who they were.
"They told people in the field to not deny an application if an applicant didn't have an identity document," he said.
And DACA applicants are not interviewed.
O'Brien said that the vast majority of the 800,000 illegal immigrants now in DACA have never been interviewed by any representative of the U.S. government, either in person on over the phone.
When reached by LifeZette on Thursday morning, a spokesman for USCIS confirmed this, saying "generally" DACA applicants are not interviewed.
This makes DACA unlike any other U.S. government program that allows someone to legally remain in the United States. Those applying for legal, permanent residency (green cards), and those going through all other legal processes to come to the U.S. or remain in the U.S., are interviewed by State Department employees at consulates or embassies or, if already in the U.S., by USCIS employees as part of an extensive vetting process.
"The whole way the program is set up, it just facilitated fraud, and I'm not entirely confident that wasn't intentional," said O'Brien.
President Donald Trump repeatedly called DACA "illegal" during his outsider campaign for the presidency, but seemed to hedge on the issue after he was elected, saying it was difficult for him to decide what to do with the program.
On Tuesday morning, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that DACA was being rescinded, calling the program "an unconstitutional exercise of authority by the executive branch" that contributed to a "surge of minors at the southern border that yielded terrible humanitarian consequences" and "denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans."
But the administration is extending the program for another six months to give Congress a chance to act, and is allowing all DACA recipients, often called "dreamers" — for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act — to renew their two-year work permits by Oct. 5 if they were set to expire before March 5, 2018.
It appears that Congress may be able to summon the votes to grant a path to citizenship, or at least permanent legal status, for the dreamers, if enough Republicans join in.
But that, said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, would be a mistake.
"USCIS never verified anything people put on their DACA applications," she said, pointing to the case of Emmanuel Jesus Rangel-Hernandez, an illegal immigrant with gang affiliations who was granted DACA status and went on to murder four people in Charlotte, North Carolina. USCIS admitted in this case that it hadn't done any checks on the information Rangel-Hernandez had provided on his DACA application, but simply accepted the information on its face.
Vaughan said the agency needs to start doing fraud assessments, the kind that were instituted at USCIS under President George W. Bush, in which a number of approved and denied applications are pulled, and gone over with a fine-tooth comb.
"It's the type of due diligence that the private sector does routinely," she said.
Granting citizenship to approximately 800,000 people who've never been interviewed, and whose identity has often not been verified, may put many more Americans at risk of violence in their communities.
Vaughan pointed out that 5,000 illegal immigrants who were being held in detention centers and who were on track for deportation at the time DACA took effect were released and granted DACA status.
"They were considered a public safety threat," she said. "Even under the Obama administration, they were being detained."
Said O'Brien: "I personally witnessed an alarming number of people who had gang affiliations applying for this program."
Most of them, he said, were approved.
The approval rate for DACA in the two most recent quarters of fiscal year 2017 was approximately 97 percent, with only 3 percent of applications denied.
(photo credit, homepage image: Pax Ahimsa Gethen)