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How one man gamed Australia’s visa system

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This article is part of a series examining a global human trafficking syndicate exploiting flaws in Australian border security and the immigration system. See all 13 stories.

A migration agent who has boasted of “cosy” meals with Coalition ministers and who donated more than $25,000 to the campaign fund of former Liberal assistant home affairs minister Jason Wood is suspected of repeatedly gaming the visa system to help more than a dozen drug offenders remain in Australia.

Wood was the chair of parliament’s migration committee when the donations took place and he hosted migration agent Jack Ta on at least two occasions to dine with now opposition leader Peter Dutton when he was home affairs minister.

A major investigation by The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes can reveal that Ta has been identified by law enforcement agencies for allegedly running a firm that has been used by Vietnamese drug offenders to exploit the visa system to avoid deportation and extend their stay in Australia.

An undercover sting has also captured Ta on camera offering to help a man posing as a heroin trafficker get visas for two people he said were Vietnamese drug runners. Asked if he could help the drug dealers extend their stay in Australia for two to three years, Ta told the undercover operative it would be “easy” and that “it’s doable”.

“Despite the fact that they’re unlawful at the moment, there are five or six different types of visas that they can apply for,” Ta told the undercover operative organised by The Age, the Herald and 60 Minutes.

The revelations come as Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil declared the nation’s immigration system broken and signalled an independent review into what she called systemic failures, including in the migration agents sector, that have allowed overseas criminals to remain in Australia.

Authorities have linked Ta’s migration agency to dozens of unmeritorious asylum seeker claims, including at least 15 made by convicted Vietnamese drug offenders.

Ta has a federal government licence to give migration advice and his firm operates in every state in Australia, as well as in Vietnam. Three official sources who briefed this masthead on the condition of anonymity said policing agencies first identified concerns about overseas drug offenders using Ta’s migration agency to file visa applications in 2014.

Records show that between 2017 and 2019, Ta donated $26,700 to a fundraising vehicle linked to Wood, who Ta has described as his “friend”. Between 2016 and 2019, Wood chaired federal parliament’s joint committee on migration as it ran inquiries into unscrupulous migration agents and into visa cancellation for criminals. Wood became an assistant home affairs minister in May 2019.

In a September 2019 Vietnamese-language post on a personal Facebook page that also advertises his business, Ta described meeting Wood and Dutton at “a very cosy dinner in the dining room of the Parliament in Canberra”.

Jack Ta with Jason Wood and former prime minister Scott Morrison.

“We talked about bills, amendment policies, and definitely this year there will be many good changes. Congratulations to my friend Jason Wood for being promoted as Deputy Minister for Home Affairs after the election, and certainly later we will discuss and contribute opinions to how policies should be amended, and the ‘author’ will also continue to represent you guys when the files have to be in need of the intervention of the Minister/ Deputy Minister.”

“Home Affairs Minister Mr Peter Dutton was still in great form, and we also exchanged what family, business and indispensably, vehicles, are all about.”

There is no suggestion that Dutton or Wood knew that Ta’s company had been used by criminals.

Ta was identified by policing agencies as part of an investigation into Vietnamese drug offenders seeking visas they were not entitled to, but there is no suggestion he was personally under investigation for any crime.

Sources confirmed that the federal government agencies have been briefed that Ta’s business is linked to more than 150 baseless asylum seeker claims over several years and that 100 per cent of protection visa applications his businesses have helped lodge are ultimately determined as being without any merit.

At least 15 convicted drug offenders are among those who have lodged the suspect applications.

Jack Ta

Jack Ta

The data suggests Jack Ta’s migration agency, which retains its federal government licences to provide immigration advice, has been enabling criminals to lodge false visa claims to extend their stay in Australia. Once a protection visa is lodged, a person can stay in Australia awaiting the approval or rejection of the claim or apply for other visa types, a process that due to departmental and tribunal backlogs can take years.

Investigators linked Ta’s office to the applications by analysing IP addresses, according to sources who are not authorised to speak publicly.

It is a breach of the migrant agent’s code to knowingly assist a person make a false visa claim, for a migration agent to fail to declare their involvement in a visa claim, or to claim a “special or privileged relationship” with any government official.

In an interview, Ta appeared to defend the lodging of unmeritorious asylum seeker claims for drug offenders because often “the only option and the only visa that they can lodge is for protection visa”. Protections visas are reserved only for those who are escaping persecution in another country.

Pressed on why a drug offender would qualify for such a visa, Ta indicated that lodging an asylum seeker claim was a means to allow them to stay in Australia while any appeal process was exhausted, or another visa was lodged.

“You can lodge it. And then you can bring the matter on appeal,” he said.

Former deputy secretary of the immigration department, Abul Rizvi, said there was no justification for applying for a protection visa for a known or suspected criminal.

Asked why there was a 100 per cent refusal rate on more than 150 protection visas linked to his office, Ta said he could not recall if his business was involved in the applications. He also said he could not recall if his office had any role lodging asylum seeker claims for at least 15 convicted criminals from Vietnam.

“I can’t give a general comment about the so called 15 people,” he said.

He did, however, state that he had offered lawful advice to more than 1000 Vietnamese cannabis crop minders caught up in the Australian criminal justice system, while also claiming there are “at least 300” criminals planning to enter Australia from Vietnam.

The suspect activity of Ta’s Australia-wide migration business has occurred over a period of several years, during which Ta– like many migration agents– posed with multiple politicians and posted the photos on his social media accounts that also advertise his migration business.

When the Coalition held power, Wood appears to have introduced Ta to a host of senior ministers who briefly posed for pictures with Ta, including prime minister Scott Morrison, treasurer Josh Frydenberg and immigration ministers Alex Hawke and David Coleman. Ta also attended an election campaign launch event for then shadow minister Clare O’Neil, where he was photographed in a small group with O’Neil and then shadow minister Penny Wong. He recently posed for a photo with Labor’s immigration minister Andrew Giles at a migration industry event. There is no suggestion any of these Liberal or Labor politicians had anything but fleeting contact with Ta.

Jack Ta poses with then shadow ministers Clare O’Neil (left) and Penny Wong.

Jack Ta poses with then shadow ministers Clare O’Neil (left) and Penny Wong.

O’Neil said of the photograph with Ta featuring her: “People like this tend to attend open community events with politicians to give an impression of political access. If I have met him, I certainly do not recall it and we have no association I’m aware of.”

There is no record of any financial donation from Ta to Labor.

But Ta has claimed an ongoing and close relationship with Jason Wood and has also donated to the Pinnacle Club, which is a fundraising entity in the Victorian MP’s seat of Latrobe.

In an interview, Ta said he had donated “tens of thousands” of dollars to the Liberals.

“I feel that as good friends, we should donate, and we should put a bit of money in making sure that our friends can have access to the best,” Ta said. Election records only disclose donations from Ta to the Liberals.

In October 2021, Ta hosted then assistant home affairs minister Wood on a Facebook Live chat in which the pair chatted about integrity in the migration sector. Ta claims to have repeatedly lobbied Wood to crack down on unlicensed migration agents.

In a statement, Wood said that his involvement with Ta was “limited and professional”, that he was aware of no adverse information about Ta’s business and that he did not believe he had ever dealt with a visa matter involving any of Ta’s clients.

“From my understanding, Jack Ta is … an industry leader,” said Wood, who also stressed that he had long championed crackdowns and reforms to tackle visa fraud.

Wood said Ta’s donations were “a matter for him.”

In a statement, Dutton said he had “never met with Mr Ta in a one-on-one setting” and “at no time were concerns raised with Mr Dutton regarding any alleged involvement Mr Ta had in the potential misuse of the visa system.”

In September 2017, Ta wrote in Vietnamese on his Facebook page that it was “an honour to have dinner with the Minister for Immigration, Mr Peter Dutton” and that “in a cosy space, we shared concerns present in Australia such as the citizenship act, deportation of criminals, and policies as well as how the Ministry of Immigration operates should be amended.”

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In August 2018, he posted that “Peter Dutton is still Home Affairs Minister, and friendly meals are still … there.”

In September 2019, Ta headlined a post in Vietnamese: “cosy dinner with the Australian Minister and Deputy Minister for Home Affairs [Wood].”

“Home Affairs Minister Mr Peter Dutton was still in great form, and we also exchanged what family, business and indispensably, vehicles, are all about,” the post said. There is no suggestion that Mr Ta’s claims to have had “cosy” dealings with Wood and Dutton are accurate.

While this masthead is not suggesting Dutton or Wood were ever told of Ta’s suspect visa practices, O’Neil said the previous government had failed to protect the integrity of the migration system.

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“There is a real problem here and that’s why I think this needs to be properly looked at and properly addressed and why the former government needs to come out and explain how it let it get to this point where criminals are coming into our country operating with impunity and no one’s doing anything about it,” she said.

The revelations about Ta’s dealings come as part of a series of reports uncovering evidence of serious gaps in Australia’s border security and immigration system. The evidence has been uncovered by Trafficked, a project led by The Age, the Herald, 60 Minutes and Stan’s Revealed documentary program.

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