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< Back to current issue of Immigration Daily < Back to current issue of Immigrant's Weekly

STATEMENT OF

DR. DEMETRIOS G. PAPADEMETRIOU

CO-DIRECTOR

MIGRATION POLICY INSTITUTE

 

BEFORE THE SUBCOMMITTEE ON IMMIGRATION AND CLAIMS

OF THE COMMITTEE ON THE JUDICIARY

 U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

 

USING INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY TO SECURE AMERICA’S BORDERS:

INS PROBLEMS WITH PLANNING AND IMPLEMENTATION

 

October 11, 2001

 

Mr. Chairman, Members of the subcommittee: Ensuring our safety requires a comprehensive, system-wide response that goes well beyond the jurisdiction of this subcommittee and includes not only the INS but each and every public agency with which foreign entrants interact. Our nation’s security from foreign nationals who may wish us ill in the months and years ahead rests on the simultaneous and sustained pursuit of several initiatives. 

This is an extraordinary task under any circumstances; it becomes even more so, however, given our record as a people of a generally low attention span on matters large and small.  This tendency makes it all the more important that we resist the twin compulsions of (1) throwing money at the problem (this problem is too large and it can “break the bank” rather quickly) and (2) rushing to create new and cumbersome data systems that may offer only marginal benefits to the common objective of making our country more secure while having enormous long term costs on who we are as a nation.

The following is a list of actions focusing on the act of seeking access to the US that, if pursued in concert and with generally uncharacteristic determination, can truly enhance our collective security.  When appropriate, certain caveats are also included.             

  • Engage in patient human and electronic intelligence gathering;
  • Share intelligence—with all necessary civil liberties’ safeguards—with other agencies authorized to have direct or indirect access to that information in a timely fashion.  (The issue of how “direct” such access should be will be crucial to how deep inter-agency cooperation will be and to the protection of our basic freedoms.)  
  • Insist on making cooperation among law enforcement agencies organic.  That means breaking down in fundamental ways unhealthy bureaucratic competition over turf and resources and reducing jurisdictional overlap to the minimum required to maintain necessary redundancies.
  • Over time, achieve similar levels of cooperation with the intelligence gathering and law-enforcement agencies of our allies in this “war on terrorism,” and particularly with those of out North American partners—Canada and Mexico.  Seamless cooperation in protecting our common North American space, what some people now call “perimeter defense,” is a goal worth pursuing at a pace and with as much vigor as prudence and the capabilities of each of our partners allow.          
  • Use public resources smartly, efficiently and responsibly—which, and apropos to the information technology focus of today’s hearing, means keeping up with technological innovations in the pursuit of our national objectives.  It may not necessarily mean, however, much greater reliance on increasingly more complex systems.  Such reliance may make us less, rather than more capable to deliver what is needed over the medium term.  This suggests that, in terms of technology, we should at least consider whether less may actually be more.

A single fundamental premise—an overarching caveat, if you will—under-girds each of these recommendations to this subcommittee.  It is that we should not act in haste either in establishing new data systems or in adopting the latest technology.   Proper use of existing data systems and incremental improvements in technology, together with stronger management by and career-long training of those who tend to and use those systems, are likely to give us all of the tools our country needs to meet its security needs.  (There are lessons—including ones in legislative humility—in my view, to the fact that every time a government bureaucracy’s information systems are put under the microscope, extraordinary failures seems to be the inevitable refrain. This fact seems to hold whether the agency under the microscope is the IRS, the INS, or the Social Security Administration.  The lesson seems to be that it takes time to assimilate new technologies and it takes real and sustained effort to use technologies efficiently.)

A good rule of thumb about new data systems is to ask ourselves whether we are likely to be as eager to invest in maintaining and upgrading those systems—and use the information in them toward meeting an important public policy objective—three or five years from now, when the national emergency no longer exists and other national priorities take their proper place in our policy and legislative pantheon.  Given the apparent enthusiasm for various ideas about developing new tracking systems for non-citizens this rule of thumb may be as good a common sense test as any we might apply to these proposals. 

A crucial corollary to this rule of thumb stems from the simple fact that complex systems of any type, as well as systems that rely on the diligence and commitment of diverse governmental and non-governmental actors for their successful operation, require an extra dose of thoughtfulness before they are put in place.  Tracking systems for foreigners should thus be particularly mindful of the following rule: they will be only as good as the data that goes into them are.  Such data will come from the INS, other enforcement agencies, the private for-profit sectors (airlines, contractors, etc.), the private not-for-profit sector (universities), employers of all types, etc.  Will all these actors be as motivated as the INS may become in always searching for missed records, fixing unintentional misreporting, or purging records as needed?  And what would be the incentives for doing so—especially since those in such a system will be foreigners, rather than US citizens?  In my view, the potential for enormous gaps (at least by the standard we seem to demand these days, that is, some sort of a near-guarantee that attacks on us will not be repeated) increases exponentially in relation to the complexity of a system and to the number of the actors whose inputs become part of any data system. 

            By way of a conclusion, I will dwell briefly on how we may protect ourselves better from those seeking to take advantage of our immigration system for nefarious purposes.  The particular focus of these remarks is the juxtaposition between “external” controls, that is, actions that we might take before an undesirable alien gains entry into our country and “internal” controls, that is, measures taken once one has been admitted.   

I will start with a general proposition.  Keeping undesirable individuals out of the US through “front gate controls” (that is, the visa issuance and border inspection regimes), is both easier and more effective than attempting to catch up with such persons after they enter the US.  Focusing most of our additional resources on prevention measures has numerous advantages over any other single set of initiatives.  Among them as the following:

  • They afford law enforcement agencies more time to consider thoroughly and, as needed, investigate a foreigner’s application for a visa, while offering them “more bites at the enforcement apple.”  Specifically, authorities have a chance to prevent one’s entry at the visa issuance step, at the point where such a person attempts to “breach” the North American perimeter defense (if they try to gain entry into the US by first entering either of our two contiguous neighbors), or when that person tries to enter the US.  Conversely, the probability of stopping such a person diminishes the closer one gets to that last step. 
  • The visa applicant has few rights—our sovereign prerogatives are strongest at that point in the process and visa decisions are not reviewable.
  • Arguably, adverse visa decisions do less damage to our international image, at least during national emergencies.
  • At the visa issuance point, the amount of resources devoted to a post and the extra time we may wish to invest in looking over an applicant will affect the rate of entry of persons from certain countries and individuals fitting certain “profiles.”  In the post-September 11 circumstances, most will judge such precautions as reasonable precautions.    
  • Finally, over time, investing resources in much more robust visa decisions will be less expensive both in capital costs and in costs to our civil liberties.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for the opportunity to appear before the Subcommittee.


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