Last year, a man trying to enter the United States from Hungary caught the attention of the Department of Homeland Security when his name showed up in an Interpol database for committing passport fraud.
As U.S. officials began consulting with authorities in Budapest, they began uncovering an alarming number of similar cases — exposing a glaring vulnerability in Hungary’s passport system.
The U.S. has now learned that about 700 non-Hungarians have fraudulently obtained authentic Hungarian passports and assumed the identities of the original passport holders, according to U.S. officials and a DHS document obtained by the Washington Post working in partnership with Direkt36 on this story.
Of that group, at least 85 attempted to travel to the United States, and 65 successfully entered through the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. As of October, 30 remained in the United States despite DHS efforts to locate and deport them.
In October, the U.S. downgraded Hungary’s status on the Visa Waiver Program to “provisional.” In April, a DHS delegation came to Budapest to warn the Hungarian government that if they don’t fix the problem, the country will be removed from the program.
Experts said the fraudulent use of authentic passports poses a serious threat to the United States and other open societies.
“The most obvious risk here is that people are coming to the United States who have a reason to disguise their identity,” said Stewart Baker, a former senior DHS official who dealt with transnational threats in Europe and the Middle East.
“Common reasons for doing this are drug smuggling, organized crime or illegal immigration,” he added. “The most troubling reasons would be a well-organized terrorist organization like ISIS or al Qaeda might purchase these documents … or the Russian spies we kicked out might fly to Ukraine, buy a Hungarian passport and fly back to the U.S.”
DHS officials believe criminals obtained the authentic passports by exploiting a Hungarian government program that allows ethnic Hungarians who live outside the country to obtain citizenship in an expedited manner. The measure was put in place in 2011 by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán who touted the importance of reconnecting with the Hungarian diaspora scattered across Europe after World War I and World War II.
Since 2011, more than a million new people have obtained Hungarian citizenship through this program. U.S. officials believe criminals came into possession of the new citizens’ passports and sold them to willing customers who then assumed new identities to travel to different countries under false pretenses.
The vulnerability has put a strain on the U.S.-Hungary relationship, already under pressure over U.S. allegations of democratic backsliding under the Orbán government.
In October, the U.S. sent a warning to Hungary by downgrading its status on the Visa Waiver Program to “provisional.” The highly prized program allows the citizens of 38 countries to travel to the U.S. for tourism or business for 90 days without having to get a visa. The warning called for the implementation of a “cooperative action plan” to be drafted within 45 days.
“DHS is prepared to take further enforcement action if Hungary fails to fulfill its VWP responsibilities,” said DHS Assistant Secretary for International Affairs James Nealon in the document obtained by The Washington Post.
Despite the warning, serious flaws in Hungary’s passport system remain, and last month, senior DHS officials traveled to Budapest as part of a scheduled visit and warned that the country could be kicked off the waiver program among other consequences. “It’s a macro concern anytime someone travels and isn’t who they say they are,” said a senior DHS official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a classified issue. “I can’t go into the specifics of what we see as the vulnerabilities.”
The official said Budapest has identified the appropriate “corrective action,” but that it remains a work in progress. “If we aren’t satisfied or they are unwilling, then we can take action to either remove them from the program or suspend them.”
A DHS spokesman declined to comment on Hungary’s progress in resolving the security hole, saying the department’s “vulnerability assessments” are classified. “DHS takes this program very seriously and works closely with our allies to further its success,” DHS Press Secretary Tyler Houlton said.
Hungary’s Ministry of Interior issued only a brief statement, saying that they have an “ongoing discussion” with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and “specifying data” is part of that.
A hero on the scene
The increasingly heated dispute between the Trump administration and the Orbán government over travel and security vetting is not without irony.
Orbán has risen to international fame for his hardline policies on migration and border security. Among the leaders of the European Union, he has been the strongest opponent of letting in immigrants and he personally ordered the construction of a fence on the country’s southern border during the 2015 migration crisis.
He was also one of the few major European politicians who endorsed Donald Trump during the 2016 election campaign. He welcomed Trump’s election as an “historic event, in which Western civilization appears to successfully break free from the confines of an ideology.”
Orban’s brand of outspoken nationalism also won favor in Trump’s circle of advisers. Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, said in March that he admired Orbán as a “hero” and “the most significant guy on the scene right now.”
But the source of the tensions between the two governments — the loose citizenship requirements for ethnic Hungarians — is important for Orban both ideologically and politically.
In 2010, Orban’s conservative government argued that the new system would help strengthen ties with the Hungarian diaspora living in the territories that Hungary lost to the neighboring countries as the result of the peace treaty after World War I. Previously, it had been a requirement that applicants reside in Hungary, but under the new system, they could simply demonstrate that they spoke Hungarian and plausibly had a Hungarian ancestor at one time.”
It has been widely reported in the Hungarian press that the system has often been abused. According to the reports, applicants used fake documents to claim that they had Hungarian ancestors and managed to pass the language test either by learning a few sentences or with the help of corrupt officials. Fast-tracked citizenship is especially attractive to Ukrainian nationals whose passports don’t allow visa-free travel in the United States.
Hungary’s government has defended the system in general, but officials have acknowledged that there have been abuses.
In 2017, interior minister Sandor Pinter disclosed that the authorities launched 55 criminal investigations in connection with citizenship fraud. The same year, Janos Lazar, then the head of the Prime Minister’s Office, said that “the government is aware that certain criminal networks built a business on misusing citizenship documents. The investigations showed that Hungarian officials were also involved in these activities.” He added though that there are no reasons for concerns because the authorities are taking care of the problem.