President Bush signed an immigration reform bill this week that will supposedly make our borders "more secure" and "smart." But "smart" technology can't cure corrupted borders. This new law won't do much good if our own State Department officials are willing to sell out national security and peddle American visas for bribes.
A little-noticed scandal is brewing to our south that President Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, open-borders panderer Karl Rove and Mexican President Vicente Fox would all prefer to ignore. It involves an FBI investigation of entrenched visa fraud at the American consulate in Juarez, Mexico. Last month, U.S. consular employee Arcelia Betansis was convicted in El Paso on federal charges of accepting bribes and gratuities in return for expediting visa approvals. From 1998 to 1999, Betansis assisted nearly 500 people seeking visas and border-crossing cards, including wealthy businessmen, drug traffickers and professional boxer Julio Cesar Chavez.
In return, Betansis received thousands of dollars in cash, loans and gifts, including airfare and tickets to one of Chavez's boxing matches in Las Vegas. And this may be just the tip of the iceberg. FBI agent Art Werge, who uncovered Betansis's crimes while conducting a major San Diego drug trafficking bust, says that Betansis' superiors are now under investigation. Unchecked visa fixing among high-ranking officials has long been rumored at the Juarez outpost, but only Betansis (a relative small fry in the office who worked in communications) has suffered any consequences.
National Public Radio correspondent John Burnett reported on this scam a few weeks ago, and the Mexican press has covered it extensively, but the Juarez visa fraud investigation has received almost zero coverage stateside. It deserves a higher profile, and it deserves attention in Congress.
Before Sept. 11, such visa-vending crimes by American embassy and consular officials might have been viewed as isolated embarrassments. Now, they must been seen as treacherous breaches that demand zero tolerance by the State Department. The consular corps is, as Steve Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies puts it, "America's other Border Patrol." Responsible for issuing more than 6 million visitor visas and nearly half a million immigrant visas every year, these consular offices are our first line of defense abroad in the war on terrorism.
Yet, overwhelmed and understaffed offices often spend less than two minutes per application. Their anti-fraud budgets are measly. And punishment for diplomats involved in visa fraud schemes is spotty and secretive. According to a review by The Los Angeles Times three years ago, a "majority of diplomats suspected of wrongdoing in issuing visas retired or were moved to another post. Cases that were opened took years to develop and usually ended up being dropped." Punishment for diplomats suspected of visa irregularities rarely appears to extend to firing or prosecution, the paper noted.
In addition, foreign-born, low-level officers working in American consulates are ripe targets for bribery. Betansis was a native of Mexico. Yemeni national Abdulla Noman, who was arrested in October 2001, used his position as a United States consular employee in Saudi Arabia to sell false visas to Middle Easterners, according to federal prosecutors. If we have enough common sense to try to bar non-citizens from the federalized airport security workforce, shouldn't we take a harder look at foreigners working in our consular offices and embassies overseas who have the power to let countless potential menaces through America's front door?
Citing "due process," State Department spokeswoman Kelly Shannon told me the department "is not at liberty" to discuss whether Betansis has been fired for her criminal behavior. So much for increasing accountability by our watchdogs overseas.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in El Paso will not comment on whether any of the nearly 500 beneficiaries of Betansis's misconduct will themselves be prosecuted or deported. So much for getting tough on illegal immigration.
And it remains to be seen whether law enforcement authorities will be able to make visa fraud charges stick against higher-ranking officials in Juarez who have friends in all the right places in both the Fox and Bush administrations -- which continue to clamor for amnesty for illegal line-jumpers and border-crossers.
So much for those smart, secure borders, huh?