More than 100 Stopped at California Ports of Entry for Passport, Visa Fraud
San Diego - Authorities seized 107 fraudulently obtained or altered travel documents including 60 U.S. Passports during a week-long, joint operation in Southern California by the U.S. Department of State's Diplomatic Security Service, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Diego.
From June 7 through June 13, "Operation Goalkeeper" targeted persons attempting to use stolen, lost, counterfeit, or altered travel documents to illegally cross into the United States at ports of entry along the California/Mexico border: San Ysidro, Otay Mesa, Tecate, Calexico, and Andrade.
CBP officers stopped 47 individuals with counterfeit or altered passports or visas and 60 imposters, persons with a genuine document that does not belong to them. The U.S. Attorney's Office is prosecuting 27 cases of passport fraud and eight cases of visa fraud brought by special agents of the Diplomatic Security Service and 12 cases that CBP's Criminal Enforcement Units, working with DSS agents, prepared for prosecution. Approximately 60 individuals using U.S. passports or visas illegally were formally deported to Mexico in lieu of criminal prosecution. The documents were seized and the violators will never be granted lawful entry into the United States.
According to federal officials, the joint enforcement operation disrupted smuggling and trafficking efforts along the California-Mexico border and developed information on illegal travel document vendors, trafficking cells, and border smuggling methods and operations.
The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, implemented June 1, 2009, requires U.S. and Canadian citizens, age 16 and older to present a valid, acceptable travel document that denotes both identity and citizenship when entering the U.S. by land or sea. WHTI approved-travel documents include a valid passport, a U.S. passport card, a Trusted Traveler Program card, or an Enhanced Driver's License from a participating state or province.
Under WHTI, CBP is able to run automated checks against law enforcement databases more easily. CBP also can validate the travel documents against information from their issuing agency, thereby substantially increasing the ability to identify fraudulent documents and the fraudulent use of legitimate documents.
WHTI is the joint Department of State-Department of Homeland Security plan that implemented a key 9/11 Commission recommendation to establish document requirements for travelers entering the United States who were previously exempt, including citizens of the U.S., Canada and Bermuda.
"The word is out that you need an approved travel document to cross the border into the United States," said Paul Morris, director of CBP field operations in San Diego. "We have seen those attempting illegal entry adjust to this new requirement from last year, and have observed increased illicit use of U.S. passports and visas by smugglers. We will recommend vigorous prosecution of those we apprehend with fraudulent documents."
CBP officials note that Tijuana and Mexicali serve as key transit points for illegal aliens seeking entry into the United States. From October 1, 2009 through April 30, CBP officers in the San Diego Field Office seized 2,238 U.S. passports and 11,712 border crossing and legal permanent resident cards that were used by aliens attempting to enter the United States illegally.
U.S. travel documents have a high value for criminals and smugglers. This fact prompted the initiative, which included DSS agents from offices in San Diego, Los Angeles and the U.S. Embassy and consulates in Mexico. In terms of numbers, duration and scope, this was the largest DSS-led operation ever conducted along the California-Mexico border
"The success of this investigation and enforcement operation - more than 100 cases of documents seized - shows that the Department of State and the Diplomatic Security Service are committed to protecting the integrity of U.S. passports and visas - the most sought after travel documents in the world," said Garth Pettijohn, acting special agent-in-charge of the DSS Los Angeles Field Office.
"DSS has a very strong relationship with the U.S. Attorney's Office, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and many other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies in Southern California," he said. "With this type of collaboration and teamwork we can more effectively combat travel document fraud and illegal entry into the country. There are foreign nationals who fraudulently acquire U.S. passports and visas to carry out criminal activities inside our borders. These crimes threaten the national security of the United States, plain and simple."
The agencies look forward to conducting regular joint enforcement initiatives in the future. These initiatives are important to maintain control and security at the international border.
U.S. citizens or legitimate document holders will be prosecuted in cases where it has been determined they sold or made their documents available for others to use, officials said.
United States Attorney Laura E. Duffy said, "The Southern District of California has six land border ports of entry through which millions of people enter each year, including San Ysidro, literally the world's busiest. This high volume of traffic presents very real and tangible national security issues. Therefore, in all cases in which false or stolen documents are used for entry, the United States Attorney's Office is committed to reviewing the evidence and determining the viability of prosecution."
Those convicted of passport and visa fraud face a maximum of 10 years in federal prison. Offenders also may be charged with aggravated identity theft, which carries a minimum mandatory sentence of two years to be served consecutively with the underlying offense.