Eight armed robberies at mini marts and liquor stores in four states were staged as part of an elaborate visa-fraud scheme, the New York Times reports. FBI agents investigating the incidents noticed patterns that they said could suggest a more complex operation, such as apparently fake guns. Two suspects, Rambhai Patel and Balwinder Singh, were each charged in federal court on Tuesday with one count of conspiracy to commit visa fraud. Based on surveillance footage, cell phone records and interviews with a cooperating witness, the FBI. concluded that purported victims each paid $10,000 to be “robbed” in exchange for immigration “papers” and that store owners received $1,500 to $2,000 for providing venues for fake crimes. Four of the robberies took place in Massachusetts, and the others in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Tennessee.
The so-called U visas are granted under a 23-year-old law devised to help law enforcement agencies investigate and prosecute cases involving domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking, among other crimes. Congress allows the government to issue only 10,000 such visas a year, and the program’s backlog of applications — 270,000 in 2021 — grew significantly under the Trump administration. When the Biden administration said two years ago that it would speed up the process of issuing temporary work permits for people waiting for U visas, critics warned of the potential for fraud and abuse. Several victims were in contact with Patel before the robberies, and in one case a robber traveled by plane for a job in which the money “likely to be obtained” was less than the cost of travel. After all but one of the eight robberies, law firms representing purported victims applied for U visas, the FBI found.