Immigrant vetting

NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It, some answers in the debate over travel restrictions and whether they reduce terrorism.

Tomorrow the Supreme Court will hear arguments over President Trump’s executive order that restricted travel from eight countries. The order applies now only to seven, as the administration removed Chad from the list two weeks ago.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: In January 2017 the president issued the first version of his executive order temporarily restricting travel from nine countries. He said that would keep terrorists from slipping into the United States until his administration could implement an “extreme vetting.”

EICHER: Federal courts struck down the president’s first executive order as unconstitutional. So in March, President Trump issued a second version… removing some of the problematic language. Administration officials say the remaining countries on the list pose a specific threat.

REICHARD: A study released last week evaluated those claims.  WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg has our report.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: When President Trump issued his so-called travel ban executive order, he also ordered the Department of Homeland Security to conduct research into how many immigration vetting failures have taken place since the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

TRUMP: We’re going to have a very very strict ban, and we’re going to have extreme vetting which we should have had for many years.

In January, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen  issued a report claiming three out of four individuals convicted of international terrorism in U.S. Federal courts were immigrants.

But national security analysts criticized the DHS report. That’s because it broadly defined immigrants as both people extradited to the US for trial as well as immigrants arrested in the country. The report also included immigrants convicted of fraud or illegal immigration in the course of a terrorism-related investigation, and it admitted a lack of data to pinpoint whether an individual was radicalized before or after arriving in the U.S.

That’s why a report released last week by the Cato Institute is significant. It’s the first of its kind to estimate the rate of immigration vetting failures with the data to back it up.

BIER: I started working on a the topic of vetting failures as soon as the president issued his first executive order.

Cato’s David Bier authored the report. For the last year, he painstakingly combed his way through hundreds of unsealed court documents, immigration records and terrorist watchlists. He wanted to know how many times from September 11th, 2001 through 2016 the United States allowed dangerous or radicalized individuals into the country that went on to commit acts of terrorism.

BIER: It is an exceptionally labor-intensive process to go through the literally hundreds of people who have been convicted of various offenses identified or place of birth and then identify when they got here and what procedures went through in order to come and what procedures would need to be enhanced in order to prevent their injury.

His findings?

Of the 531 people convicted of or killed in carrying out terrorism-related crimes since Sept. 11, 2001, 13 entered the United States despite security screening improvements. And only one of those 13 participated in a deadly attack in the U.S.

Bier compares that number with 52 people wrongly admitted into the country in the 15 years before the 2001 security reforms. Half of those committed a deadly terrorist attack.

That means today the annual risk of dying in a terrorist attack as a result of a vetting failure is just one in 328 million—while homicides kill one in every 20,000.

BIER: So there’s been an extraordinary, uh, improvement in our vetting processes after the attacks.

Those improvements include establishing the Department of Homeland Security, creating terrorist watchlists, improving technology to collect digital fingerprints and facial scans, and beefing up the visa approval process. Plus, hiring thousands of new border customs and immigration officers.

Bier says the U.S. immigration vetting system could always be improved, but says his findings indicate overall the system is sound.

BIER: The study shows, I’m sure more than anything else, is that you can make improvements in this area without just banning whole groups of, of, of immigrants.

The White House has not issued a response to the report, but it’s attracting significant media attention. And so far, its methodology is holding up under the scrutiny.

This week several individuals, a Muslim organization and the State of Hawaii will argue before the Supreme Court that President Trump’s travel restrictions exclude visitors based largely on religion and national origin and that the president lacks sufficient evidence that these eight nations pose a specific threat.  

David Bier says his report supports that claim.

BIER: The vetting failures that we’ve found since 9/11, only one of them originated in one of these selected countries. And so the other seven countries that were listed, uh, were not the origin of any vetting failures, which undermines his argument before the court.

Despite the report’s findings, DHS is moving forward with a plan to launch a National Vetting Center intended to streamline vetting and improve the flow of information between federal agencies.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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