When he worked as an officer at the American consulate in Shenyang China last year, Flushing native Kamal Latham began to question why an unusual number of Chinese citizens were presenting him with invitations to visit casinos in Las Vegas.
Latham, who issued visas to Chinese nationals for the consulate, had reason to be suspicious. The invitations were fake, produced in a Chinese factory dedicated to making forged documents for Chinese citizens planning to illegally enter the United States.
For the past three years, Latham has studied such documents, trying to cut down on illegal immigration to the United States from China.
"It's a fascinating career," he said in a recent interview at the Sheraton LaGuardia East Hotel in downtown Flushing. "My experience in China has really opened my eyes."
This month Latham, 29, has returned to the borough to discuss his work in Shenyang, meeting with state Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky (D-Flushing), Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing), the Rotary Club of Flushing and the Kiwanis Club of St. Albans.
A graduate of Bayside's Cardozo High School and Temple University, Latham spoke around the borough as part of a new outreach program known as Hometown Diplomats in which State Department officials return to their home neighborhoods to discuss their work abroad. The program is designed to boost job applications to the federal agency. The State Department suffered a shortage of employees in the early 1990s and is now looking to increase competition for its positions, he said.
Latham, who joined the agency in 1999, and his wife plan to move on to a new assignment with the State Department in Paris in September.
Shenyang is located in northeast China, the nation's rust belt. With China's changing economy, many of its factories have shut down in recent years, leaving northeast China economically depressed. With jobs scarce, the region's residents are trying to enter the United States, and northeast China has developed a reputation for fraud, Latham said.
Authorities and the media are only beginning to realize the extent of Chinese immigration fraud, Latham said.
"We are at the tip of the iceberg in terms of understanding," he said.
Latham estimated that he interviewed 17,000 to 18,000 Chinese nationals in his time in Shenyang, speaking with as many as 100 people a day in Mandarin.
In those short conversations, Latham questioned the Chinese citizens on their ties to China, their purpose of travel and their ability to pay for their trip.
Chinese nationals must demonstrate their economic, legal and social ties to try to prove to the U.S. State Department that they have reason to return to China after their visit to the United States.
Many of those who plan to remain illegally in the United States purchase forged documents from Chinese smugglers known as snakeheads and present those documents to U.S. diplomats such as Latham.
In his work, Latham attempted to distinguish the real documents from their fake counterparts.
"It's impossible to catch all of them," he said. "But we have been able to identify thousands of individuals who wanted to go to the United States to illegally integrate."
Chinese nationals also present forged papers, such as the casino invitation letters, to try to prove they have a purpose in visiting the United States.
Oftentimes, the snakeheads make thousands of copies of letterhead from U.S. politicians or companies in their own factories in China, writing phony invitation letters on the pages, Latham said.
With many Chinese immigrants headed for Queens, the borough's politicians and companies are potential targets for snakeheads, Latham said.
"You could have a fake company in China contact an official in Queens to ask for an invitation to come to discuss investment opportunities in Flushing," he said.
The snakeheads charge immigrants $10,000 to $50,000 for a package of forged documents, Latham said. If they are not paid, they often hunt down indebted immigrants within the United States, Latham said.
"They use the same brutal tactics that some of the Mafia organizations use to collect debts," he said.
In recent years, State Department officials have improved their ability to recognize forged materials coming out of the secret Chinese factories, Latham said.
"We may not be able to stop the factories," he said. "However, we cannot give visas to people who are using the documents produced at these factories. That puts a number of these snakeheads out of business."
To learn more about working for the State Department, visit www.state.gov.
Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 141.
©2003 Community News Group
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