WASHINGTON -- A special visa program that allows churches to bring thousands of foreign religious workers into the country each year is riddled with fraud, an investigation by the Department of Homeland Security investigation has found.
The probe found numerous instances in which groups in the United States falsely claimed to be churches, and visa applicants lied about their religious vocations in order to get into the country . More than a third of the visas examined by investigators were based on fraudulent information.
A report on the investigation, obtained by the Globe, said that instances of fraud were particularly high among applicants from predominantly Muslim countries, and the report raised concerns about potential terrorism risks.
Homeland Security auditors who reviewed an application for a 33-year-old Pakistani man, for example, could not locate the alleged religious group listed on the petition as his sponsor, and when investigators went to the group's address they found an apartment complex.
In addition, the investigators found that an address listed on the form ``has been used by an individual suspected of membership with a terrorist organization." The report does not say whether the address was in Pakistan or the United States.
In another case, investigators found that an Egyptian man working for a religious group in the United States had filed ``at least 82 petitions with many fraud indicators" in an attempt to obtain visas for dozens of alleged religious workers.
Under the program, churches, synagogues, and mosques can ask the government to grant visas to foreigners to fill vacant positions. The sponsoring group or the foreigner may file the application.
Applicants must include letters from their sponsor attesting that they have been a member of its denomination for at least two years, that they will fill a specific religious position, and that they are qualified for the job. The application must also provide evidence that the sponsor is a bonafide religious organization that qualifies for non-profit tax status.
The US government issues several thousand religious worker visas each year. There are two types: temporary three-year visas, and ``green cards" that allow foreigners to become permanent residents. The Homeland Security study looked only at petitions for green cards, but the report noted that the three-year visa program faces identical fraud risks.
The program dates back to 1990, and it has primarily been used by the Catholic Church. The State Department said that statistics breaking down recipients by faith are not available, but the majority do not come from predominantly Muslim countries. In fiscal year 2006, the top five countries of origin for religious worker visa recipients were India, Mexico, South Korea, Brazil, and Colombia.
The program has long been suspected of being susceptible to fraud. In 1999, for example, the General Accounting Office found that many applicants for temporary religious worker visas were unqualified for the positions they were coming to fill.
Such concerns have grown since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In September 2004, a Pakistani man living in Brooklyn was convicted of visa fraud for helping more than 200 illegal immigrants falsely obtain religious worker visas. The man had declared himself to be an imam and the basement of his store to be a mosque.
The Brooklyn case helped prompt Homeland Security, which had inherited the religious worker visa program from the old Immigration and Naturalization Services, to conduct an audit. The internal investigation was completed in August 2005, but it has not been made public. The Globe obtained a a redacted version with several pages missing.
Stewart Baker, assistant secretary of homeland security for policy, said in an interview that the department is still wrestling with how to crack down on fraud in the program without hurting the benefits it provides to legitimate churches.
``There is way too much fraud in this program," Baker said. ``One of the things we need to do is go there more often and actually check that it is a real institution, because unfortunately one form of fraud is to say `I have a storefront church,' and when you go to that address there is a store, not a church."
Baker said the department is significantly increasing the number ``fraud detection and national security investigative officers." There were only a ``negligible" number of such agents before 2005, he said. Last year the department trained 160, and this year it is adding 220 more.
The new agents will be charged with investigating the claims of all visa applicants, including checking up on the sponsoring group after they have arrived in the country.
In the 2005 investigation, Homeland Security agents subjected a random sample of 220 religious worker petitions to more intense scrutiny than they normally receive. On 78 of the applications, they discovered such problems as ``paper" churches, described in the report as ``offices with no indication of religious functions"; petitions that overstated workers' experience and qualifications; and immigrant workers who did not end up working for their sponsor religious organization.
The probe found a particularly high fraud rate among applicants from countries the government deemed to pose a security risk, such as Egypt, Algeria, Pakistan, Syria and Iraq, the report found. There were 11 applications for people from special-risk countries among the 220 petitions that were audited -- and 8 of those 11 were fraudulent, it said.
Some immigration watchdogs say that the program should be seriously curtailed because, even in cases where the applications are legitimate, the visas could bring radical clerics into the country.
Last year, for example, the FBI arrested three Pakistani men associated with a mosque in Lodi, California. All had entered on religious-worker visas. Two were accused of ties to a terrorist training camp in Pakistan before coming to the United States, and the third, an imam, allegedly delivered sermons endorsing violence against non-Muslims before he came to America. All three were deported for having overstayed their visas, but were not accused of obtaining them fraudulently.
Calling for sharply increased scrutiny to be placed on the program, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an anti-immigration group, said that the government must spend more to police the program.
``We're living In a post-9/11 environment where any loophole that can be leveraged to aid and abet any potential terrorist cannot be tolerated," said Susan Wysocki, a FAIR spokesperson. ``If something is being abused, it needs to be stopped, it needs to be reworked, and it needs to be implemented properly."
Baker agreed that the potential for terrorists to use the program to enter the country has been a concern, but he said that the program needs to be preserved because it has provided ``real value" to ``a lot of legitimate religious organizations that are well established."
The Catholic Church, for example, needs the program because not enough Americans are choosing a religious vocation. Margaret Perron, director of religious immigration services for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, said that there are 100,000 fewer nuns in the United States than there were 40 years ago, and one in ten parishes is without a resident priest.
Perron said she did not know how many priests, nuns, and brothers the Catholic Church had in the United States on religious worker visas, but that her operation alone was currently working on more than 850 open cases for foreign Catholic workers who are seeking visas.
``I would urge [the government] to exercise caution in terms of totally eliminating the program," Perron said. ``I think in the Catholic Church it certainly serves a purpose, and there are other religions who also make legitimate use of it. You should not throw out the baby with the bathwater because of some abuses by some people."
Baker said he was sensitive to such concerns, acknowledging that ``there has been a little bit of alarm at the prospect that the program will be changed radically." But, he said, ``the kinds of things we're looking at won't interfere with the ability of the Catholic Church to bring in priests if they need to bring in priests from abroad."
Nonetheless, Kevin Appleby, director of migration and refugee policy for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Homeland Security officials have told him they are considering a plan to require churches to show that any visa applicant will have defined duties and wages, as well as proof of a place abroad to which the applicant will return.
Appleby said he worried that such requirements would not fit the lifestyle of Catholic nuns and brothers, who often receive no wages, perform different tasks from day to day, and move about from home to home within their order.
``What we're concerned about is that they are going to put such strict regulations in place that it will limit us being able to bring in certain kinds of religious people," Appleby said.