Vetting Alone Won’t Secure Borders


June 21, 2024

By Matt O’Brien

A recent sting operation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the FBI resulted in the arrest of eight Tajikistani nationals who are suspected of ties to the ISIS terror group. All eight were subjected to background checks when they crossed the border in 2023. Those checks came back clean, and it was only after they had been turned loose in the U.S. that law enforcement found their possible connections to terrorism.

ICE and the FBI should be commended for disrupting what appears to have been a terrorist cell making plans for an attack in the U.S. But law enforcement was lucky in this case. This group of homicidal thugs could easily have gone undetected until after they killed thousands of innocent Americans.

Accordingly, the true moral of this this story is that vetting alone isn’t enough to protect the national security and public safety of the United States. The only acceptable approach to border security is to view it as a process of managing risk. The “come one, come all, nobody will be turned away” migration policies of the current administration invite risk, rather than managing it.

The ability to run a background check on someone is dependent on two key factors: 1) that the individual has a traceable history; and 2) that the U.S. government can access reliable information about that history. Individuals who come from countries that don’t have or won’t share records cannot be effectively vetted.

Moreover, most of the information reviewed during background checks is “reactive” rather than “proactive” – meaning that vetting systems are filled with information regarding bad acts that malefactors have already committed. The thinking is that what a bad guy has done in the past is a pretty good indicator of the kind of additional bad things he may do in the future.

But terror groups want to infiltrate their targets using members who won’t attract attention, so that remain free to gather information and plan attacks. The gold standard for doing this is a “cleanskin” – a covert operative whose identity and background are unknown to the security forces of the target country. Because the whole purpose of a cleanskin is to use somebody who will pass background checks, the reactive information contained in most vetting databases is useless in attempting to identify them.

The only acceptable approach to border security is to view it as a process of managing risk. The “come one, come all, nobody will be turned away” migration policies of the current administration invite risk, rather than managing it.

Tajikistan is a case in point. The U.S. Agency for International Development says the country’s “existing economic, social, and governing systems are neither optimal, nor sustainable.” And the CIA World Factbook says Tajikistan is beset by “pervasive corruption.” Poor, corrupt countries rarely keep reliable records because the government functionaries responsible for maintaining records systems inevitably supplement their salaries by accepting bribes for altering existing records and producing bogus documents that appear real.

Meanwhile, Tajikistan is caught in the throes of jihadist extremism. The most recent Department of State (DOS) Travel Advisory and Country Security Report for the country flat out states that numerous terror groups are operating there. If Tajikistani nationals are free to travel to the United States, then cleanskin Tajik terrorists can make their way here.

And the eight Tajiks picked up in the ICE-FBI sting aren’t the only terrorists who managed to infiltrate the U.S. during the current border free-for-all. In FY2023 alone, 169 individuals on the terrorist watchlist were apprehended inside the United States. And those are just the ones we know about. How many more terrorists made it through undetected?

So, what is the best way to proactively manage the risk presented by foreign nationals who cannot be vetted? It is as straightforward and simple as possible: Don’t let them in. And, when you find them here, kick them out as quickly as possible.

The Department of Homeland Security, the DOS and all of the other U.S. security services are well aware of what countries present a threat to American citizens. And the Immigration and Nationality Act confers more than ample authority on the president to bar and deport individuals from countries that present an inordinate terror threat.

In fact, in Trump v. Hawaii the Supreme Court unequivocally affirmed the Trump Administration’s efforts to do just that. What the mainstream media derided as a “Muslim ban” was, in reality, a temporary moratorium on the admission of individuals from a list of countries that were known to support terrorism and were infamous for refusing to cooperate with U.S. vetting efforts.

Why isn’t the Biden Administration acting to protect U.S. citizens from global terrorism? Who knows? But if it doesn’t immediately get serious about using a multi-layered, risk management approach to border security, the U.S. is going to experience another attack that is likely to rival the horror this nation experienced on September 11, 2001.

Matt O’Brien is the Director of Investigations at the Immigration Reform Law Institute and the co-host of IRLI’s podcast “No Border, No Country.” Immediately prior to working for IRLI he served as an immigration judge. He has nearly 30 years of experience in immigration law and policy, having held numerous positions within the Department of Homeland Security.

Also published at American Thinker, June 20, 2024.

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