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27 Apr, 2011

WikiLeaks Cables Expose Indian Visa Fraud Tactics

From falsifying documents and setting up fake websites to pretending to be “religious leaders”, Indians are resorting to a variety of tactics in the hope of getting a U.S. visa, according to cables from US diplomatic missions in India published on the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks.

In the leaked cable dated Oct 2009 and released by WikiLeaks on 24 April 2011, the U.S. Consul in Chennai said in the India Biannual Fraud Update, “Fraudulent civil documentation is common in India, both in terms of documents that have been fabricated outright, and documents issued improperly. (U.S. diplomatic) posts see a myriad of fraudulent documents, including fake civil registry documents, counterfeit entry/exit stamps and third-country visas, employment letters, sponsorship and financial documents, bogus degrees and entrance examination scores, and altered marriage and site photographs.

“Visa consultants sell such documents to applicants who seek their advice about how to qualify for visas. Peddlers of fraudulent documents abound and operate quite openly in major Indian cities and even some of the smaller towns. Government officials are not above fraudulent issuances either. Virtually all birth certificates, death certificates, and marriage registration documents can be purchased from corrupt local government officials or brokers.”

The cable, which offers a detailed compilation of the numerous problems facing diplomatic missions in India, sounds a clear warning to tourism and immigration authorities worldwide about the potential downsides of the Indian outbound travel boom. Although countries which require visas from Indian citizens have some mechanisms in place to detect fraud, the many countries  now offering Indian citizens visa-free or visa-on-arrival access are bound to see a commensurate rise in illegal Indian immigrants. A reopening of the long-standing debate over tourism promotion policies and visa requirements is a foregone conclusion.

The cable notes that inspite of booming economic conditions in India, “an opinion poll published in the popular Times of India in January 2007 noted that 37 percent of the 1.1 billion Indians would emigrate if they had the chance. Many Indians have tried to migrate (to the U.S.) using non-immigrant visas, and a greater number of Indian nationals apply for employment-based H and L visas than any other nationality worldwide.”

Busiest in the World

According to the cable, “India-wide consular operations are among the busiest in the world. In FY-2008, Mission India processed more than 756,000 non-immigrant visa applications and 27,000 immigrant visa applications.

“While the majority of applicants from India are bona fide travelers and migrants, the volume of fraudulent applications is still significant. Some states, such as Gujarat and Punjab, are traditional sources of migration out of India and fraudulent applications from these areas are more common than from other regions of India. The state of Andhra Pradesh, and in particular its capital of Hyderabad, has been identified as a large center of documentary fraud which affects all India posts.”

The cable says, “Mission India processes more H and L visas than any other country in the world, more than 30 percent of the world total in FY-2008. Although H and L visa applications were down slightly in FY-2009 due to the worldwide economic environment, Mission India still processed 120,320 H and L visa applications in the first three quarters of FY-2009, including 60,725 in Chennai alone.

“Mission India processed 192,332 H and L visa adjudications in FY-2008 and 190,087 in FY-2007. Chennai, Mumbai and New Delhi have been the three busiest H-1B visa processing posts in the world for the past five fiscal years, and we project that India posts will comprise the top four in the world now that the new Consulate General in Hyderabad is adjudicating visas.”

It says that “in FY-2009, the non-immigrant visa classes most often targeted for fraud were B1/B2 business travelers/tourists, H-1B temporary workers, F1 student visas, and P3 culturally unique artists. Since the implementation of the new petition requirement for R-1 religious workers, Mission India has seen very few fraudulent R-1 cases. The most commonly targeted immigrant visa classes were IR-1s and CR 1s in Delhi and F-2B and F-2A visas in Mumbai and Chennai.

Specific regional areas

“During the six month period from March through August 2009, Mission India’s consular sections identified a total of 3,596 cases of suspected visa fraud (Chennai – 1,237, New Delhi – 949, Mumbai – 809, Hyderabad – 523, Kolkata – 78). 5. Most of India’s fraudulent applicants come from specific and easily defined regional areas within each consular district.

“These states have some of the most mobile populations in India and the largest concentrations of expatriate communities overseas, including in the United States. In New Delhi, cases originating from the Punjab comprise the majority of its IV (Immigrant Visa) and fraud caseloads, while the same can be said in Mumbai with Gujarat. Chennai and Hyderabad’s fraud workload comes principally from Andhra Pradesh.”

It says that “B1/B2 visa fraud is the most commonplace. Regionally-based fraud rings throughout the country, but especially in Hyderabad, continue to produce fraudulent documents for visa application and travel purposes. Some visa “consultants” and travel agents specialize in fraudulent experience letters and fake document packages, which include passport copies of false relatives, bogus financial documents, and affidavits of support.”

It cites several examples: The New Delhi post “uncovered an extensive network of fraudulent Lions Club conference attendees. Mumbai recently discovered a scam involving unqualified children being misrepresented as attending different schools in an attempt to boost their financial credibility as Space Camp attendees. As a result, Mumbai now requires signed affidavits by chaperones and has physically canceled the visas of several large camp groups.”

According to the cable, “H-1B fraud is one of the top two visa categories for fraud throughout Mission India. All posts regularly encounter inflated or fabricated educational and employment qualifications. The vast majority of these documents come from Hyderabad. In the 18 months prior to the start-up of consular operations in Hyderabad, FPU Chennai investigated 150 companies in Hyderabad, 77 percent of which turned out to be fraudulent or highly suspect (ref F). Most of those cases slated for site visits were to verify the experience letters for H-1B applicants who did not meet minimum educational qualifications.”

Tightened Procedures

Applicants masquerading as religious pilgrims were also problematic until the procedure was tightened to be petition-based. The cable says, “During the last two years, most R-1 fraud was detected amongst Tibetan refugees, Sikh raagis, and Hindu priests. Mission R-1 fraud includes both fraudulent beneficiaries and fictitious inviting parties. Since DHS began requiring petitions for R-1 applicants in November, R-1 fraud referrals have almost completely dried up. Since DHS requires 100 percent on-site verification of petitioners, however, many potential R-1 applicants now apply for B1/B2 visas in an attempt to avoid closer scrutiny.”

It outlined religious visa fraud trends from Chennai, Mumbai and Kolkata thus:

“Mumbai noted that following numerous Fraud Prevention Unit site visits in the states of Gujarat and Maharashtra in which none of the purported Sikhs were legitimate religious workers, CY-2008 R-1 visa refusals have climbed to nearly 70 percent. Mumbai and Kolkata noted similar findings that Sikhs and Tibetan monks had the highest percentage of confirmed fraud during this period. Kolkata confirmed that 85 percent of R-1 Buddhist monks from the Northern District of West Bengal did not belong to the monasteries as they claimed. Most of these fake priests were from Nepal or from the south Indian state of Karnataka. FPU Kolkata observed that Buddhist priests and monks from this region all speak Hindi, and Buddhist monks who claim to speak only Tibetan are not from West Bengal. A recent Mission-wide study of stateless B1/B2 applicants, most of whom were purportedly Tibetan monks, confirmed an overstay rate of over fifty percent.”

It said that “an astute catch by the FPM in Kolkata caught several fraudulent R-1 applicants applying the same week in Mumbai and New Delhi. Based on an A/RSO-I investigation in New Delhi that uncovered fake stamps for an organization in Michigan, Chennai arranged the arrest of three fake Sikhs, and the Kolkata FPM used Watch Phrase to alert U.S. Mission New Zealand about its applicants connected to the same Michigan organization.”

For Performer Visas, Chennai, Mumbai and New Delhi have all been active in combating fraud of cultural performers and reporting on P3 fraud trends. According to the cable, the highest rate of fraud is in New Delhi, which has developed a mandatory Fraud Prevention Unit prescreening program for these types of cases. Its study validated an overall refusal rate of 56 percent and confirmed an overstay rate of five percent. Mumbai found that while P3 holders did not overstay their visas, several did report being mistreated and underpaid.

“An investigation by the Chennai FPU in 2008 uncovered a visa fraud racket through which famous Tamil film actors and industry associates assisted mala fide applicants to obtain B1/B2 visas, purportedly to scout movie locations. Over two hundred applicants applied for visas under this scheme, and 95 were issued.”

Fictitious Marriages and Divorce

One of the more “particularly troublesome” visas are the F and CR categories (families and relationships). The cable says “posts see false family relationships and fictitious marriages and divorces every day. The Indian custom of arranged marriages makes adjudicating IR and CR cases particularly difficult, as the husband and wife often do not meet until just before their marriage. Many of the IV fraud referrals in Mumbai are CR-1 or F-21 cases stemming from “arranged” marriages between U.S. citizens or LPRs and Indian nationals. Thus, much of the FPUs’ time is dedicated to determining the legitimacy of the family relationships that sustain the claim to immigrant status.”

It adds, “Posts also frequently encounter misrepresentations of marital status in order to benefit from later “current processing dates” (e.g. falsely claiming to be single by denying the applicant has a spouse and children in order to qualify for F1 classification) and misrepresentations of the age of children in order to qualify as part of the family eligible to immigrate. Chennai has seen the largest number of these cases originating from the state of Kerala.”

The cable says that Alien smuggling from and through India using fraudulent travel documents is one of the most serious challenges facing posts in the region.

“Smuggling ranges from individual document vendors to sophisticated criminal organizations that move hundreds of people to the U.S. each year. Delhi and Mumbai have become key transit points for illegal migrants proceeding to the U.S. from India. DS/CR/VPAU, in consultation with DRSO/I New Delhi, and the Austrian, Canadian, British, and New Zealand High Commissions continue to monitor third-country nationals transiting New Delhi with counterfeit documents. Individuals of numerous nationalities, including Armenians, Iraqis, Moroccans, Georgian, Bangladeshi, Congolese, Nepalese, and Sri Lankans have been intercepted attempting to transit New Delhi with fraudulent documents. Other Indian airports have also been reporting similar patterns. From 10/2008 to 04/2009, there were 32 encounters/off-loads involving Nepalese/Tibetans via New Delhi enroute to JFK alone.

It says, “Trafficking in persons (TIP) remains an area of concern. India is a source, destination, and transit country for men, women, and children trafficked for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation and forced labor. Internal trafficking of women and girls for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation and forced marriage is prevalent. The GOI estimates 90 percent of India’s sex trafficking is internal, although estimates of the number of trafficking victims vary widely and are generally unreliable. Recent years have seen an increase in trafficking to medium-sized cities and satellite towns of large cities. India is also a destination for women and girls from Nepal and Bangladesh trafficked for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation.”

Indian Passport Fraud

It is not just the visa documentation but also the Indian Passport itself which is described as “a significant and continuously worrisome fraud challenge.”

Says the cable, “For all of the security features and improvements in quality control of current Indian passports, quality and issuance control are lax and penalties are so inadequate that virtually anyone can obtain a genuinely issued, but fraudulent passport with near impunity,” the cable says.

“The design of the Indian passport incorporates many good security features that would normally lead to a more favorable rating of this document’s vulnerability. The problem lies in production inconsistency and vulnerable source documents. Quality control is lax at production locations. Thus, genuine passports sometimes are partially or completely missing security features. Genuine passports issued on the same day at the same place can look entirely different – a different batch but the numbers are sequentially close.

“The only documentation required for a passport is proof of birth and proof of residency. Easily reproduced school records can suffice for the former, while a bank statement or utility bill can be used to “prove” the latter. Although police are supposed to verify the information on each application by visiting the applicant’s neighborhood and interviewing neighbors, such checks are often cursory at best. In most cases, police officials will only check warrant records and then hand over a clean record to passport authorities. Notwithstanding these problems, the fact the application process requires a police check is positive,” the cable says.

All these problems mean that significant efforts have to be made to combat them. This is being done through increased use of technology, training programmes, arrests, better internal coordination as well as “an increasing amount of pressure both from the U.S. government and from other diplomatic missions, primarily the U.K., Canada, Australia, Germany, and New Zealand” on Indian law enforcement to address smuggling and trafficking issues.”

It says, “All posts have increased efforts to work more closely with Indian authorities in a number of areas of common interest, such as making Indian documents more secure, establishing fraud prevention strategies, verification of civil registry information, and the apprehension of criminals. Airport police and immigration authorities in Mumbai have been aggressive in detaining individuals who DHS deported for fraudulent documents. Law enforcement in New Delhi has been actively involved in arresting visa vendors but has not taken a general interest in arresting persons denied boarding at the airport for presenting fraudulent documents, in part due to the absence of a U.S. presence at the airport.”

Read the original cable as well as other leaked cables on this issue:

Mumbai P3 Groups Use Visas For Unintended Purposes

IACC Removed from Mission India Business Executive Program

Religious Worker Visa Fraud: Monks, Priests, Nuns And The People Who Impersonate Them

Indian National Biometric ID Card