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For diplomats from the embassies of Jordan, Brunei, and Benin, Hendarmin Mansoer was the chauffeur who shuttled them through Washington, D.C.’s teeming traffic. To U.S. Embassy officials overseas, however, Mansoer had assumed the identities of some of those same diplomats in a visa-fraud scheme that exploited weaknesses in U.S. border security. When investigators searched Mansoer’s home in Silver Spring, Md., they recovered stolen embassy letterhead stationery, stamps containing official embassy seals, embassy employment records, and even passports belonging to ambassadors and other embassy personnel from Benin, Brunei, and Jordan. Some of the seized documents included Mansoer’s scrawled handwriting from his practice at forging diplomats’ signatures. “He took advantage of the fact that he was inside [the three embassies],” says Eric Nordstrom, deputy branch chief of the Diplomatic Security Service’s Visa Fraud Branch. “He was stealing the identities and the documents from their human resources section for diplomats who were formerly stationed there or still stationed there.” Mansoer, a 44-year-old Indonesian citizen who held an A-2 diplomatic visa through his embassy jobs, filed 63 fraudulent visa applications with U.S. Embassies in Indonesia and Pakistan for scores of paying clients and relatives. Nineteen Indonesians successfully entered the United States after receiving A-3 diplomatic visas from Mansoer, fooling U.S. Embassy officials with false claims they had been hired as housekeepers by diplomats at the three embassies where he worked. On Oct. 27, U.S. District Judge Henry Kennedy Jr. sentenced Mansoer to 27 months in federal prison after he pleaded guilty to false making of visas and aiding and abetting. Mansoer, who had faced up to 10 years in prison, agreed in a plea deal not to contest deportation after his imprisonment. Mansoer earned approximately $60,000 from his clients during his five-year run. His was the latest in a string of cases involving diplomatic visa fraud in the District. State Department officials and federal prosecutors say the human-smuggling schemes could threaten national security by allowing illegal aliens, including potential terrorists, to enter the United States, often with the unknowing aid of foreign embassies victimized by their employees or by other criminals claiming to be diplomats in fraudulent visa applications. “It’s more common than a lot of folks realize,” Nordstrom says. “Just as with any illegal immigration system, it obviously could be exploited by anybody.” Mansoer’s visa fraud “opened a wide gap in our borders and created a situation that may well have been taken advantage of by persons seeking to enter into the United States to do harm here, including violent harm,” says a sentencing document from Assistant U.S. Attorney Brenda Johnson. Of the 19 Indonesians who illegally entered the country with Mansoer’s help, “the whereabouts and activities of most of them are unknown at this time,” Johnson states in the document. Despite the brazen nature of Mansoer’s criminal enterprise, his illicit acts were not detected or reported by any of the three embassies where he had worked. Rather, Mansoer’s downfall was a byproduct of his success. Word-of-mouth advertising in the Indonesian community in the D.C. area helped Mansoer land new business, but too many people knew he was the man to see if family or friends in Indonesia wanted to buy their way into the country. Tips gleaned for an unrelated Indonesian asylum-fraud sting named Operation Jakarta led to Mansoer, who was arrested in May in a joint investigation by the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Detecting visa fraud has become a national security priority because all 19 of the Sept. 11 terrorists entered the United States with visas. The State Department, which operates 211 visa-issuing posts overseas, now works with the Department of Homeland Security to combat visa fraud and deter terrorist threats. But the implementation of DHS’ Visa Security Program, which assigns visa-security officers to U.S. embassies and consulates, has been delayed by bureaucratic wrangling with the State Department, a shortage of language-proficient officers, and the lack of a strategic plan, according to a 2005 Government Accountability Office report. Meanwhile, the State Department is working on its own counterterrorism training and computer-software improvements to combat visa fraud. “Any avenue of illegally entering the country might be used to ill effect,” says Tony Edson, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for visa services. “All fraud is potentially a threat. You just need one bad egg.” INSIDE THE EMBASSIES Diplomatic visa-fraud cases present their own unique challenges to investigators and prosecutors. Search warrants cannot be used to search embassies. Also, prosecutors cannot compel testimony via subpoena from foreign diplomatic personnel because of reciprocal international agreements that protect U.S. embassies overseas, says William Blier, special counsel for national security at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. If a diplomat is involved in visa fraud, he can avoid prosecution unless his diplomatic immunity is waived by his host country, Blier says. “There are sensitivities any time you’re dealing with embassies and allegations about stuff going on within embassies,” Blier says. “Sometimes, even when the embassies are the victims, there are sensitivities.” Under the State Department’s visa system, foreign diplomats are issued A-1 visas, while most embassy staffers receive A-2 visas. Both A-1 and A-2 visa holders can sponsor foreign citizens for A-3 visas to work in the United States as personal servants, such as maids, cooks, or nannies. Neither the Jordan nor the Brunei embassies responded to requests for comment about Mansoer’s employment as a driver and his visa-fraud conviction. The embassy for Benin, a West African nation about the size of Pennsylvania, didn’t know about Mansoer’s theft of embassy documents until investigators contacted the embassy earlier this year, says Emanuel Ohin, the embassy’s head of chancellery. Ohin says a similar instance of visa fraud has never occurred at the Benin Embassy, but he doesn’t know if other embassy employees aided Mansoer. “I think the police are working on this case, so let the police continue making its work and find out who to implicate in this,” Ohin says. Mansoer’s case has caused the Benin Embassy to take voluntary steps to improve internal security. “That is our responsibility. We are working on it,” Ohin says. In another visa-fraud case, Mohamed Abdel Wahab Yakoub, a 61-year-old Egyptian native and former driver for the Saudi Arabia Embassy, filed fraudulent A-3 visa applications using stolen Saudi Embassy letterhead and official stamps, claiming Egyptian and Filipino citizens had been hired as servants by Saudi diplomats in the District. Yakoub, who was fired by the Saudi Embassy in 2002, pleaded guilty to one count of smuggling aliens into the United States. In April he was sentenced to 30 days of incarceration and two years of supervised release. Other diplomatic visa-fraud cases have involved individuals with no embassy ties. In May, 25-year-old Mohamed Hussain Mohamed Riyal of Sri Lanka was sentenced to 10 months in federal prison after submitting fraudulent A-3 visa applications for himself and 18 other Sri Lankan nationals, claiming they were going to work for nonexistent Saudi diplomats in the District. Thirteen of the Sri Lankans, including Riyal, gained entry to the United States, but 10 have been detained for prosecution or deportation proceedings. In yet another case targeting the Saudi Embassy, Jaime and Fellie Luna filed fraudulent Saudi A-3 visa applications in a failed attempt to smuggle several Filipinos into the country. In April, U.S. District Judge James Robertson sentenced the husband and wife to four months of house arrest, three years of probation, and $7,500 in fines or restitution. Despite the possible national security implications of these cases, the sentences have been relatively light, in part because the defendants entered plea deals or cooperated with government investigations. The Diplomatic Security Service’s Visa Fraud Branch has several ongoing investigations of diplomatic visa fraud, Nordstrom says. Past cases often have followed trends involving embassies from Persian Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, and personal servants from Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, Philippines, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. People from those countries, who often are Muslim, have a long history of immigrating to Persian Gulf states to work in service-related jobs, Nordstrom says. Last year the State Department issued 1,227 A-3 visas and denied 332 additional applications. No one knows exactly how many of the issued visas are fraudulent. To deter fraud, investigators can search databases to check the number of A-3 visas already requested by a diplomat. “How many personal servants does one diplomat need?” Nordstrom says. “There is a threshold of common sense. When it goes beyond that, it’s going to raise a red flag.” As it does with all visa applications, the State Department checks A-3 visa applications against terrorist watch lists and fingerprints applicants. State is also updating its software to allow greater access to FBI crime databases by U.S. embassies and consuls, Edson says. TOP-DOWN TROUBLE The Homeland Security Act of 2002 ordered the assignment of DHS visa-security officers to U.S. embassies and consulates to provide training on visa fraud, counterterrorism, and other issues. But the DHS’ Visa Security Program has been bogged down in a bureaucratic morass. An initial assignment of visa-security officers in Saudi Arabia beginning in 2003 was ineffective because the temporary officers lacked specialized training and were not fluent in Arabic, according to a 2005 GAO report. DHS has recommended expanding the Visa Security Program to five additional posts each year. At that pace, it will take more than 40 years before all 211 overseas visa-issuing posts are covered. This is a concern because the State Department does not have full-time fraud-prevention officers at all of its consular posts, with those duties sometimes handled by junior officers on a part-time basis, the GAO report found. The Visa Security Program is already behind schedule, as the first five posts chosen for assignment of visa-security officers encountered resistance from some of State’s chiefs of mission, who must approve the assignments. Some embassy officials questioned DHS’ site-selection process, and the GAO report found that DHS had no strategic plan for expansion of the program. DHS visa-security officers have been assigned to “a limited number of posts,” Edson says. ICE spokeswoman Ernestine Fobbs says the locations of those posts are classified for security reasons. The State Department, which has expanded its training of consular officers in counterterrorism interviewing techniques, has added more than 520 consular officers since Sept. 11, which represents a 12 percent to 14 percent increase in staffing at overseas posts, Edson says. Despite those improvements, another GAO report released last year found 26 percent of midlevel consular positions were either vacant or filled by an entry-level officer. VISAS FOR DOLLARS Mansoer’s visa fraud was driven by economic need, not terrorism, says Nathan Silver, his court-appointed defense attorney. There was no evidence that the 19 Indonesians who illegally entered the United States with Mansoer’s help had any plan to harm the country, Silver says. “It appears they were people coming here who were seeking to bypass the legal visa process because of their interest in working here,” Silver says. Several of the 19 Indonesians have been detained for deportation proceedings, but others are still fugitives. Mansoer earned $1,600 to $1,800 a month as an embassy driver and was supporting his wife, a niece, and four children, including a baby born in October. Silver says his relatives plan to return to Indonesia because their visa status is tenuous in the wake of Mansoer’s conviction. Although Mansoer did not have terrorist ties, smuggling illegal aliens into the United States from Indonesia is a risky business. Indonesia is a hotbed for radical Muslim terrorists — bombings of the Australian Embassy and an international hotel in Jakarta, along with a terrorist attack in Bali, have killed hundreds of people in recent years — and the State Department discourages American tourists from traveling there. President George W. Bush stopped in Indonesia for just a few hours Nov. 20, during his trip through Southeast Asia, after the chief of Indonesia’s intelligence agency warned that terrorist attacks by fugitive Islamic militants were possible during Bush’s visit. “We consider enforcement in this area [of visa fraud] as a national security priority,” Blier says. “We need to know who is coming into this country, and they need to do it legally.”
Brendan Smith can be contacted at blsm[email protected].

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