Brant Houston, Knight Chair in enterprise and investigative reporting at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, opened a Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting workshop on April 11 by noting its sessions would cover the bleak side of visas.
“We’re going to be watchdogs,” he said, “because that’s the only way things get better.”
He talked about different visa stories and introduced the following topics:
- Visa fraud: Visa fraud can be perpetrated in several different ways from falsifying documents to sham universities exploiting the visa system thru making a profit off foreign students.
- EB5 program: People can invest $500,000 to $1 million to get a visa.
- The Diversity Visa Program: The program is a lottery to get into the United States that admits 55,000 people per year.
Mike McGraw, who currently leads the KCPT Hale Center for Journalism’s investigative news efforts, also recommended the following tools for journalists looking at the visa program:
- Inspector General reports for the Department of Homeland Security, the United States Department of Labor (for work-related visas), and the State Department (especially for U-visas and T-visas)
- The Government Accountability Office and its news-alert feature
McGraw discussed how employee visas tied to the employer, such as E2 visas, leave the door open for employer abuse and fear of reporting any employer abuse.
“The system provides virtually no protection against employer abuse,” McGraw said. “Leaving the workplace for any reason means losing their legal status.”
Filipino workers recruited with false promises of doubling or even quadrupling their pay at L’Amande French Bakery, filed a lawsuit against the bakery in March.
In addition to working 17-hour work days for the bakery for less than minimum wage, the workers said they had to do construction projects, cleaning and landscaping for the bakery owners for slightly more than $2 an hour.
McGraw said, additionally, visas allow for human trafficking victims to come into the country completely legally.
“Often [visas are] used for cheap labor to cut costs,” he said. “So, follow the money when you’re looking at these visa programs.”
McGraw said, although these programs are riddled with abuses, Congress still allows for thousands of visas to be issued in under-regulated programs every year. It even blocked efforts to protect program abuses.
To further complicate things, as many as four federal agencies – the U.S. Department of Labor, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State and the Department of Justice – are involved in regulating the visa process and there is no evidence that they all work together.
“For years, we’ve talked about fixing a horribly broken immigration system in this country,” McGraw said. “And we never fix it. Congress never takes it on.”
Wrapping up the session, Houston said it was key to approach investigations incrementally over time.
“You build story on story,” he said. “You prove your credibility with sources and build trust.”