Last week's FBI probe into the possibility that two local Lodi men, U.S.-born Hamid Hayat, 24, and his father, Umer Hayat, 47, might have ties to al-Qaida, should draw attention to one the nation's biggest problems in the terrorism war: visa fraud.
Note that also arrested on "immigration violations" were two imams, Muhammed Adil Khan, 47, and Shabbir Ahmed, 42, and Khan's 19-year old son, Mohammad Hassan Adil.
According to the Lodi News-Sentinel, Khan and Ahmed are in the United States on religious worker, or R-1, visas. Khan's 19-year-old son, Hassan Adil, is here on a R-2 visa issued to religious worker family members. Although the FBI refuses to discuss any specifics, "violations" historically translates into either falsifying a visa application or overstaying the term of one's visa.
Regardless of the outcome of these specific Lodi cases pending in the San Francisco immigration court, the religious visa program has been rife with fraud since its creation by Congress in 1990. Americans concerned about the war on terrorism should be aware of the R-1 visa and how it -- and other easily obtained visas -- is abused.
Each year, thousands of R-1 nonimmigrant visas are issued to foreigners to come to America to allegedly pursue religious endeavors. The visas are issued to fill a supposed shortage of religious professionals among the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths.
According to the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Service Web site, anyone who receives an R-1 visa must demonstrate strong ties to his home country -- supposedly assuring he will return -- and he must also agree to stay in the U.S. for a specific, short-term period.
But in reality, the visa holders may not intend to return.
Consider these examples from the ugly R visa history.
First, Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, the Egyptian cleric who plotted the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, came to the U.S. on a religious visa.
Rahman, who received his visa despite being on a terrorist watch list, ultimately overstayed his legally permitted time in the country thus enabling him to perpetrate the WTC attack.
Second, in its 1999 report titled "Visa Issuance: Issues Concerning the Religious Worker Program," the General Accounting Office discovered active R visa fraud scams in churches in Colombia, Fiji and Russia.
"Neither INS or the State Department knows the extent of the fraud in the religious worker program," the GAO concluded.
Third, in 2002, the GAO's findings were confirmed when the New York U.S. Attorney's Office filed a complaint against Muslim Muhammed Khalil, his son Amil and three others.
The five were charged with filing false R visa applications on behalf of 200 Middle Eastern aliens. Charging $8,000 per application, Khalil submitted applications that used false names, fake occupations, non-existent universities and bogus religious training certificates.
Khalil and his associates were arrested. The whereabouts of most of the others among the 200 who received religious visas remain unknown.
Fourth and most recently, according to a 42-count indictment made by the federal grand jury in Dallas and unsealed in July 2004, the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development and its leaders were charged with funding the terrorist organization HAMAS as well as money laundering and tax evasion.
The HLF, then the largest Muslim charity operating in the U.S., had its assets frozen in December 2001. Four of its employees were in the U.S. on R visas.
In light of the Lodi case, some focus on the R-2 visa given to immediate family members is worthwhile.
Anyone who is in the U.S. on an R-2 visa is free to marry. If he marries an American citizen, then he is on the path to a green card.
If he marries a non-U.S. citizen, the couple's children are American citizens. Either way, the R-2 visa holder has taken the first step toward American citizenship.
An R-2 visa holder's flexibility is particularly important considering that Osama bin Laden has repeatedly stated that the most important thing in his jihad mission to destroy America is to recruit U.S. passport holders.
Readers who are interested in learning more about visa fraud should read syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin's 2002 book, "Invasion: How America Still Welcomes Terrorists, Criminals and Other Foreign Menaces on Our Shores," and the 2002 Center for Immigration Studies report titled "The Open Door: How Militant Islamic Terrorists Entered and Remained in the U.S., 1993-2001."
No matter what the truth is in the Lodi case, the Bush administration owes it to America to tighten up on religious visas. The R-1 visa provides easy access into the country for people who may be intent on harming us.
The U.S. can get along perfectly well without the R-1 visa. But we may not be able to survive if the government continues to issue them.
Joe Guzzardi, an instructor at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.