Former 9/11 Commission lawyer offers insights on improving refugee vetting immediately
WASHINGTON April 24, 2017 Janice Kephart, former 9/11 Commission border counsel and partner with Identity Strategy Partners, LLP (IdSP), today issues the following statement:
"With or without President Trump's March 6, 2017 Executive Order: Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry, refugee vetting can be instilled with greater confidence, enabling the reactivation of legitimate refugee resettlement. (Right now, all refugee applications are suspended by until at least July 2017). Improvements in current refugee vetting will require a language change to current law, identity enrollment taking place earlier in the process, and the implementation of a long-ignored 9/11 Commission recommendation. But improvement is doable, and now.
So why does the refugee population present a threat to national security? The reason is twofold: (1) intelligence for years has revealed a terrorist travel tactic of infiltrating refugee populations for eventual resettlement into Europe or the United States, and (2) by legal definition refugees are displaced persons with unknown identity. Even for those with an ID, establishing its authenticity or trusting its origin is difficult since by policy, no information is shared with the home country, so there is no country of origin against which to run checks as in a regular visa referral. Since the refugee demographic tends to be anonymous, it is more difficult to ensure a person is who they say they are, and then affiliate that identity with intelligence and other potentially significant financial or other data. In short, limited identity and intelligence information diminish confidence in recommendations about which refugees to accept for U.S. resettlement.
The program responsible for vetting refugees seeking U.S. resettlement is the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). It is run jointly by the State Department, who receives referrals from the United Nations and conducts initial processing including a biographic name check, and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), who conducts more in-depth interviews and collects biometrics from applicants. The program has been fine-tuned over many years. Yet the program requires vital improvements, and the recommendations below should be considered minimum baseline requirements.
Congress must change law to enable U.S. access to refugee biometric data collected by the United Nations. Since 2013, the United Nations has a sophisticated biometric identity management system that collects 10 fingerprints, two irises, and face of every refugee, sometimes two to four years before a U.S. referral for initial biographic screening. Right now, due to an archaic law that prevents sharing of biometric information collected by a non-U.S. citizen, the U.S. has no access to this key identity information. The law needs to change to permit that biometric data be available for vetting against federal databases from designated international partners such as the United Nations.
Refugees must be biometrically enrolled the first time they enter the U.S. system. State does not collect any biometrics from refugees, and thus only has the word of the refugee as to who they are, making the required biographic checks a potential goose chase. While USCIS does collect rolled prints and a face photo at the time of the interview, current vetting against some U.S. biometric holdings do not return results for up to 24 hours, after the interview is already over. If State collected the biometrics as part of their pre-screening interviews conducted by their Resettlement Service staff, USCIS interviews would be better informed, and so would the final assessment.
Implement the 9/11 Commission recommendation for a person-centric immigration system. State and USCIS use different case filing assignments for refugees. Policy does not require that State initiate a file number that USCIS recognizes or uses in the processing of the ultimate immigration benefit the refugee seeks. Thus, each applicant has two different file numbers, creating disconnect and potential for confusion and duplication. Yet the problem could be eliminated entirely if case numbers were eradicated and the 9/11 Commission recommendation for a biometric-based identity number for the entire immigration system were put in its place. When biometrics become the baseline for any immigration encounter, identity is protected and the automatic creation of a timeline of immigration encounters reduces fraud and increases efficiencies for legal immigration. Implementation of this long ignored 9/11 Commission recommendation could drastically improve the U.S. immigration system, and with it, refugee vetting as it stands today."