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NEW YORK - Two New York men have been arrested for allegedly staging a series of armed robberies that would make the "victims" eligible for immigration benefits, said the Department of Justice.

Rambhai Patel and Balwinder Singh were each charged with one count of conspiracy to commit visa fraud. Beginning in March 2023, Patel and his co-conspirators, sometimes including Singh, staged armed robberies in eight convenience/liquor stores and fast food restaurants across the United States.

In each staged robbery, the "robber" would pull out an apparent firearm and threaten the store clerk or owner, they would take cash from the register and then escape. These "robberies" were captured on surveillance cameras, where it was shown that the "victims" would wait a few minutes as the robber escaped before calling the police and reporting the crime. Patel allegedly paid the store owners to let them use the stores for the staged robberies that would serve his purposes.

According to the DOJ, Patel and Singh allegedly carried these orders for the store clerks and owners to claim they were victims of a violent crime and thus qualify for a U Visa.

In the U.S., a person is eligible for a U Visa if they were victims of certain crimes and have suffered mental or physical abuse or to those who were helpful to law enforcement in the investigation or prosecution of criminal activity.

A U Visa can bring substantial benefits to those who qualify. It can erase a past immigration violation, provide a four-year work permit, protect from deportation and give the applicant the possibility to apply for a green card, also known as a permanent residency. Moreover, the U Visa can also allow the applicant to include family members in the application.

In January 2022, an audit was conducted by the Department of Homeland Security to determine how effectively the U Visa program applications were being managed up to that moment.

The audit found that the program was susceptible to fraud, leaving questionable visa petitioners to obtain U visa benefits and, at the same time, legitimate victims could be left waiting more than 10 years to receive a U visa. In the U.S. more U Visa applications are approved than rejected, however a case can take many years to process.

It is still unclear if the "victims" of the staged robberies had successful applications. The duo, however, could face a sentence of up to two five years in prison, three years of supervised release, and a fine of $250,000.

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