Even as conservative columnists such as Ann Coulter (T&D, Nov. 1) were chastising President Donald Trump for a loss of focus on immigration, the country got a wakeup call on terrorism.
The latest terror attack, this one in the shadow of the worst assault on America in its history in New York, puts the focus again on immigration, particularly on people coming from predominantly Muslim countries.
The Uzbek immigrant accused of mowing people down along a bike path went on the deadly rental-truck rampage "in the name of ISIS" and planned it for weeks, closely following the extremist group's online instructions, police say.
According to The Associated Press, investigators have worked to extract information from Sayfullo Saipov about the attack that killed eight people Tuesday near the World Trade Center memorial. Saipov, 29, was shot by a police officer after jumping from his pickup.
The fact that Saipov was in the United States under the Diversity Visa Lottery program set off a new round of attacks on immigration policy by the president.
The program dates to 1990, when Republican President George H.W. Bush signed it as part of a bipartisan immigration bill. Trump called on Congress to eliminate it, saying, "We have to get much tougher, much smarter and less politically correct."
As much as many Americans will agree with Trump that winning a lottery program is a shortsighted standard for accepting someone into the United States, it is important that policy changes not be made without sufficient study.
The Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law is a nonpartisan law and policy institute. It recently released a report on Trump’s call for extreme vetting and a Muslim ban. The report examines the security features of the U.S. visa system, and discusses changes the Trump administration is making. 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 report highlights:
• 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 United States, 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.
• Americans’ safety is bolstered by visa vetting processes that are the product of study 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 policy responses based on stereotypes and intuitions rather than evidence harm the “strategic and national security interests of the United States,” 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.
As much as Trump may argue that the Brennan Center is opposed to the president and his policies, the institute does make the case that policy should be well-formulated based on facts and the best forecasts that experts can provide. Reactionary approaches are often regretted.
That said, the U.S. vetting system that Brennan calls “one of the world’s toughest” should not have to deal with those seeking admission to the country based on winning in the Diversity Visa Lottery.