U.S. Indicts Three Over Scheme to Exploit Iraq Refugee Program

The U.S. Justice Department charged three people in a scheme to steal confidential data for about 1,500 Iraqis seeking refuge in the U.S. and help coach them through the interview process, according to an indictment unsealed Friday.

From 2016 to 2019, two of the defendants, citizens of Jordan and Russia who are former employees at the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service, accessed applicants’ information and sent it to an Iraqi citizen, the indictment said. The data contained questions interviewers might ask the applicants as well as assessments of their cases and other information.

The indictment and a Justice Department statement didn’t say how many people, if any, successfully got refugee status in the U.S. because of any data breach.

The indictment prompted the State Department to impose a 90-day halt on the the Direct Access Program for U.S.-Affiliated Iraqis, which the applicants were using for refugee status. That program, created in 2008, allowed Iraqis who had worked for American government, military and media organizations during and after the Iraq war, to apply directly to the U.S. for refugee status rather than having to go through the United Nations.

“The U.S. is holding individuals accountable for using the refugee program for personal gain,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a tweet. “A 90-day pause on the program for U.S.-affiliated Iraqis will address vulnerabilities. Our top priority is the safety and security of the American people.”

A separate statement from Acting Secretary of State Daniel Smith said the broader U.S. refugee program wasn’t affected.

Of the 90-day suspension Smith said, “We recognize the importance of assisting those who legitimately put their lives at risk to provide critical support to the United States in Iraq and we do not take the decision to suspend this program lightly.”

— With assistance by Chris Strohm

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