Nov. 1, 2017 – Following yesterday’s tragic terror attack in New York City, President Trump swiftly pivoted to promoting his longstanding immigration agenda. In statements over the past 24 hours, Trump said that he has “ordered Homeland Security to step up our already Extreme Vetting Program” and also that he has begun the process of terminating the Diversity Visa Lottery program. The Brennan Center recently released a report on Extreme Vetting and the Muslim Ban, which examines the security features of the U.S. visa system, and discusses changes the Trump administration is making to them. Though it does not specifically discuss the Diversity Visa Lottery program, many security measures examined in the report are common to all visa programs. Here are a few highlights:
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- The U.S. visa vetting system is one of the world’s toughest. Applicants’ biographic data, photographs, and fingerprints are collected and screened against a range of national security databases that contain millions of entries and include classified information from federal, state, local, and foreign governments. Applicants must provide voluminous documentation to verify their identities and backgrounds. Immigrant visa applicants – those applying to stay permanently in the U.S. – are generally subject to more scrutiny than temporary visa applicants, including a medical examination and other screenings.
- Though terrorist attacks committed by foreign-born persons are statistically very rare, the Department of Homeland Security has found that such cases often involve people who developed violent inclinations years after their entry into the U.S., meaning increased visa vetting would not have been useful. In fact, decades of counterterrorism research has not been able to confirm traits that could be used to identify people who have a propensity for terrorism. Over the decades, policies designed to investigate ideology “have proven to be poorly equipped to actually predict what people are going to do,” according to former Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner.
- Our safety is bolstered by visa vetting processes that are the product of study, not reaction, and are responsive to “specific, credible threats based on individualized information,” in the words of over 40 former high-level national security officials across the political spectrum. Broad, ham-handed policy responses based on stereotypes and intuitions rather than evidence harm the “strategic and national security interests of the United States,” corrode relationships with allies, and reinforce terrorist propaganda, according to those same officials.
- As with policy in any other realm, there are tradeoffs – economic and cultural – to banning or increasing the hurdles to travel into the country. Given the current system’s existing rigor and low error rate, any attempts at recalibration should be based on careful study.