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California and the West

Firms That Administer Citizenship Tests Accused of Fraud

Immigration: Grand jury indicts 20 people on charges of collecting more than $3 million in 22 states for promises that applicants would pass exams.

January 28, 1998|MARK GLADSTONE and PATRICK McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — An undercover probe has turned up evidence of corruption among some private contractors who administer citizenship tests, raising questions about citizenship applications submitted by as many as 13,000 immigrants nationwide, federal prosecutors alleged Tuesday.

In court papers unsealed Tuesday, U.S. Atty. Paul L. Seave revealed that a federal grand jury last week indicted 20 people who allegedly collected more than $3 million from immigrants in 22 states in return for promises that they would pass written tests in English and civics.

The alleged scheme was centered in Sacramento, officials said.

Authorities said the fraud investigation, which is continuing, goes directly to the heart of what it means to be a citizen.

"Generations of immigrants have sacrificed and labored mightily for the honor of U.S. citizenship," Seave said at a news conference. "These defendants have tarnished that honor for everyone by selling one step toward citizenship like a used appliance at a flea market."

The use of private contractors to test applicants on their knowledge of U.S. history and government and English has long been a lightning rod for criticism. The Immigration and Naturalization Service, which oversees the testing, discontinued its contract with one firm a year ago after evidence surfaced in Texas of "significant fraud," said Bill Strassberger, an INS spokesman.

In the alleged fraud revealed Tuesday, authorities said the defendants would guarantee immigrants that they would pass the test in return for a fee of $150 to $500. The tests, which cost $30 when administered by the INS, are a precursor to follow-up oral exams also given by the INS in which immigrants must demonstrate their knowledge of English.

The defendants allegedly targeted immigrant communities in California and the other states by spreading the guarantee by word of mouth, Seave said.

Acting as subcontractors to six private testing concerns, the defendants carried out the scheme by engaging in a range of allegedly fraudulent practices. Those included: supplying the correct answers to test takers, permitting test takers to compare answers, and correctly completing incomplete or incorrect exams, Seave said.

In some cases, authorities said, immigrants in Flushing, N.Y., and elsewhere merely mailed in tests to centers. The defendants operated six "testing" centers, mostly in California, including Sacramento, Stockton and San Diego.

Sometimes the defendants would allow their clients to fail the exam the first time so that the testing centers' rate of passage would not appear too high and spark suspicions among administrators, officials said. But INS officials became suspicious of fraud after people who could barely speak English began to show up for the oral part of the citizenship exam. Williams said officials at the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J., one of the parent contractors, also raised concerns about some of the subcontractors it hired to run test sites.

In all, 20 people from Sacramento, Flushing, Omaha, and Aloha, Ore., were indicted after a two-year investigation that included agents from the INS, U.S. Justice Department, FBI and Internal Revenue Service, Seave said. Thirteen have been arrested, 11 of them in Sacramento. A prosecutor said all those in Sacramento pleaded not guilty Tuesday during an arraignment in federal court.

Daniel Linhardt, the lead prosecutor in the cases, said the figure of 13,000 applications was derived by investigators from the number of tests subcontractors shipped to the parent testing organizations for final processing.

Last year, 1.6 million people applied for U.S. citizenship; about 700,000 people became citizens.

Immigration authorities say they do not know how many people involved in the scheme may have become citizens but that they are reviewing all 13,000 cases. Some people could face deportation, they said.

The criminal charges are the latest blow to the nation's besieged naturalization program, which is buckling under the pressure of unprecedented numbers of applications. There is a backlog approaching 1.7 million people in the naturalization lines.

But the revelations surrounding the testing services are probably less damaging to the agency's credibility than the ongoing scandal centering on the service's failure to perform adequate background checks on tens of thousands of applicants.

Johnny Williams, regional director of the INS, acknowledged that the probe will further hasten efforts to revamp the citizenship process and may lead to scrapping it.

Critics of the system say the indictments underscore the need for either greater INS oversight of private contractors or an outright end to the use of such firms.

"Becoming a citizen is not something you should franchise out. It's not McDonald's," said Ira Mehlman of the Federation of American Immigration Reform, which favors a reduction in immigration levels. "These indictments illustrate why citizenship testing should be the duty of the government."

Of the 20 people indicted, 12 are from the Sacramento area. Only one, Ahmad Noorzayee, 34, of Reseda, is from the Los Angeles area, according to authorities.

If convicted, the suspects face potential sentences of up to 10 years in prison and fines of up to $1 million.

At the center of one group of subcontractors is Thanh Ngoc Nguyen, 37, also known as Tom Wynn, according to a sworn affidavit by Paul Haney, an INS special agent. In his affidavit, Haney said Nguyen operated International Multiple Services, a Sacramento-based subcontractor.

Haney said Nguyen employed recruiters who solicited immigrants from different ethnic communities. The recruiters, Haney said, guaranteed people they would pass the test.

Nguyen could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Gladstone reported from Sacramento and McDonnell reported from San Diego.

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