How Passport and Visa Fraud Relate to Identity Fraud

Testimony of Robert W. Starnes, Special Agent-in-Charge of the Houston Field Office, Bureau of Diplomatic Security, Before the Texas State Senate, Infrastructure Development and Security Subcommittee; Houston, Texas, March 31, 2003

Chairman Ogden and Senators:

Thank you for inviting us here today to provide testimony related to Texas Senate Bill 944.

My name is Robert Starnes. I serve as the Special Agent-in-Charge of the U.S. Department of State, Diplomatic Security Service, Houston Field Office. I have been employed with the Diplomatic Security Service for the past 16 years. Prior to joining the Diplomatic Security Service, I was employed as a Texas Highway Patrolman. With me is Jay Smith, a Supervisory Special Agent-in-Charge of our Major Crimes and Protective Liaison Unit.

The Diplomatic Security Service is the law enforcement and security arm of the U.S. Department of State. Diplomatic Security Service agents are posted in over 160 countries worldwide, in our headquarters in Washington, DC,  and in eight field offices throughout the United States. An important function allotted to Diplomatic Security Service by the United States Congress is the investigation into allegations of passport and visa fraud.

The United States passport is one of the most important identity documents in our country. For most U.S. citizens, it will be the only document they ever hold that states unequivocally that they are in fact citizens of the United States. Upon the issuance of a passport, the United States State Department in effect certifies the passport holder to be a United States citizen. U.S. passports are legally recognized as proof of both a person's identity and citizenship. In fact, 22 U.S.C. 2705 provides that a valid maximum validity U.S. passport is proof of citizenship during its period of validity and has the "same force and effect as proof of U.S. citizenship as certificates of naturalization or of citizenship issued by the Attorney General or by a court having naturalization jurisdiction." Consistent with this statute, at least one federal court has recognized that a fully valid U.S. passport issued to an individual as a citizen of the United States is not subject to collateral attack in administrative immigration proceedings but constitutes conclusive proof of such person's U.S.citizenship.

Aside from offering proof of citizenship and identity as interpreted by U.S. courts, U.S. passports allow citizens free passage into our country with much less scrutiny than is given to foreign citizens. U.S. passports also allow our citizens visa-free passage into many countries around the world. These benefits obviously make our passports extremely valuable to criminals who operate on an international scale.

Passport fraud is rarely a crime unto itself. Obtaining a U.S. passport fraudulently is almost always a crime intended to facilitate other crimes. Those other crimes will generally fall into one or more of the following categories:

     1)  Illegal immigration c
ontraband smuggling (i.e., narcotics, weapons, illegal aliens, etc.)
     2)  Flight from justice
     3)  Economic crimes (i.e., bank fraud, insurance fraud, credit card fraud, confidence scams, etc.) 
     4)  Hostile intelligence
     5)  International terrorism

A common nexus that exists with foreign terrorists who have conducted operations within the United States has been the use of fraudulent identity documents, including state driver's licenses and identification cards.

To acquire a U.S. passport for the first time, the applicant must provide evidence of citizenship, such as a certificate of birth in the United States or a naturalization certificate. The applicant must also submit proof of their identity--in other words, they must show that the birth certificate pertains to them. Such additional documentation of identity might be a valid government-issued identification document (i.e., state driver's license, state identification cards, military identification, etc.) that includes a photograph and/or physical description of the holder. A nongovernment identity is accepted in some instances, (i.e., known companies, school identification, etc.). The most common form of identity evidence presented with a passport application is a state-issued driver's license or identity card. Those attempting to obtain original U.S. passports fraudulently must generally first acquire one or more of these documents.

The three most common schemes exposed by our investigations regarding attempts to secure original passports through fraudulent means are: 1) stolen identity; 2) counterfeit identity; or 3) true identity using counterfeited citizenship document. Regarding the third category, often during the course of our investigations, it has been discovered that aliens first acquire a legitimate state driver's license or identification card using their authentic foreign-issued proof of foreign citizenship documents. And then they obtain a stolen blank birth document, or doctor an existing form to match the identity. It is also common that a birth certificate used for an assumed identity will be provided as basis for issuance of a driver's license.

Most nonimmigrants entering the United States must first apply for and receive a U.S. visa. Once issued, a U.S. visa allows the nonimmigrant to apply for entry to the United States under certain statuses (i.e., visitor, student, work, etc.). Department of Homeland Security officials at ports of entry determine how long the nonimmigrant is permitted to stay in the United States. Those nonimmigrants who obtain visas through fraudulent pretense, in many instances, have no intent of returning to their own country. Once in the United States, in an effort to meld into our society, these individuals almost always try to obtain certain documents. In our experience, a state driver's license or identification card is one of the first documents these people attempt to secure. Once issued, these drivers' license and/or identification cards are used to open bank accounts, secure credit cards, obtain social security cards, acquire employment, secure residences, etc.

In conclusion, whether acquiring their visas legitimately or through fraudulent means, most criminal aliens, to include terrorists, must assimilate themselves into our society in order to be successful in their unlawful endeavors. Most of these criminal aliens will overstay the time allotted on their visas. Since driver's licenses and state identification cards are an important part of everyday life in America, it is clear that measures that have the effect of curbing their use to further criminal schemes deserves serious consideration.

Thank you.