Barletta Quizzes DHS Secretary: How Many “Asher Potts” Are There?
Click here or on image to watch Barletta Q&A with DHS Sec. Jeh Johnson
WASHINGTON – Congressman Lou Barletta, PA-11, today cited the example of a 23-year-old Ukrainian man fraudulently enrolled in a public high school in Harrisburg as chilling proof of dangerous flaws in the U.S. visa system, and asked the Secretary of Homeland Security how widespread the problem is. During a House Homeland Security Committee hearing, Secretary Jeh Johnson declined to answer the question, instead directing his answer toward his concerns about the use of fake documents generally. Barletta also used the occasion to renew his push for his legislation that would increase the penalties for overstaying a visa to bring it into line with the punishment for entering the U.S. by illegally crossing the border.
Barletta recited the facts of the case of “Asher Potts,” a student at Harrisburg High School, who is in reality a 23-year-old Ukrainian man named Artur Samarin. Samarin originally entered the U.S. on a three-month work visa, and then used a tourist visa, which expired in March 2013. His “surrogate parents,” Stephanye McClure-Potts and Michael Potts, allegedly helped enroll him in school, at first as a 20-year-old freshman, with fake documents under the assumed name. He reportedly obtained a Pennsylvania driver’s license under the fake name in 2014. He is being charged with multiple offenses, including theft, identity theft, tampering with public records, conspiracy, and statutory rape. No charges have yet been filed against the “surrogate parents,” who now claim that Samarin talked about attacking his fellow students at the school.
“Nothing could be more chilling than the thought of terrorists enrolling as students,” Barletta said to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Johnson. “Previously, we have heard of terrorists taking flying lessons. But imagine them sitting next to your kids in algebra class. The fact that this has happened in central Pennsylvania shows how serious this is.”
“How many more Asher Potts are there?” Barletta asked. “Nationwide, my question is, how many individuals have overstayed their visas, falsified their identities, lied about their age, and are sitting in school classes today?”
Johnson sidestepped the question about the frequency with which visa overstayers have used false documents to enroll in public schools, and instead expressed his concern about the use of falsified documents in general.
“I’m going to agree with the spirit of your question,” Johnson said. “I think that in this current environment, and this current threat environment, the potential for fraudulent travel documents is a big concern. So I’ve done a lot to support DHS’s fraudulent documents lab, which we have. We have the capability to detect fraudulent documents. I also have asked our folks to – now that we have some better clarity on visa overstays – develop priorities for enforcement with regard to visa overstays.”
Visa Overstay Enforcement Act
During the hearing, Barletta again highlighted the fact that more than 40 percent of the people who are unlawfully present in the U.S. did not illegally cross a border to enter the country: they entered legally on a visa, the visa expired, and they never went home. However, the penalty for overstaying a visa is currently only a civil offense, while illegally crossing the border carries a criminal punishment. Barletta has introduced legislation which brings parity to the punishment by strengthening the law against overstaying a visa.
“Don’t you think the penalties should be the same if you cross the border or if you overstay your visa?” Barletta asked Johnson. “Your status is the same. You’re unlawfully present here. Shouldn’t the penalties at least be the same?”
“I’d have to think about that a bit more,” Johnson said.
Barletta’s legislation strengthens the visa overstay law by:
- Criminalizing the overstaying of a visa:
- Makes the first offense a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail, a fine of up to $5,000, or both.
- Makes subsequent offenses felonies, punishable by up to two years in jail, a fine of up to $250,000, or both.
- Placing restrictions on future reentry by those convicted of visa overstays:
- First-time offenders may not reenter the country for five years, or be granted a new visa for ten years
- Those with multiple visa overstay convictions may not be readmitted into the U.S. for life.
- Allowing for case-by-case exceptions for individuals who overstay a visa for medical necessity, public safety, or national security.
- Providing multiple notices of a visa overstay offense by requiring the Department of Homeland Security or the Department of State to disclose the penalties to visa applicants both upon application and then upon admission.
“The 9/11 Commission taught us that, to terrorists, travel documents are just as important as weapons,” Barletta said. “It’s the preferred method of entry to our country for terrorists – to come here legally, and then just stay. Disappear into the heartland. Nevertheless, our government continues to fail at keeping track of who has entered our country and whether they have left. And if you are home to an international airport, your state, you essentially live in a border state.”
After the hearing, Barletta expressed frustration that the problem of visa overstays tends to be ignored when questions about national security arise. He said the case of Artur Samarin is a perfect illustration of why the holes in the visa system are so dangerous.
“It doesn’t take much imagination to envision the worst-case scenario of a terrorist infiltrating a school by impersonating a student,” Barletta said. “The visa system has holes all through it. At the very least we ought to make it a crime to stay here after a visa has expired. Otherwise, why even issue visas in the first place?”