New National Immigration Vetting Center Prompts Questions, Anxiety

The budget, DACA negotiations, and White House intrigue pushed the Trump Administration’s announcement of the creation of a National Immigration Vetting Center out of the headlines. On Tuesday, February 6, The Presidential Memorandum on Optimizing the Use of Federal Government Information in Support of the National Vetting Enterprise announced:

Border and immigration security are essential to ensuring the safety, security, and prosperity of the United States.  The Federal Government must improve the manner in which executive departments and agencies (agencies) coordinate and use intelligence and other information to identify individuals who present a threat to national security, border security, homeland security, or public safety.  To achieve this goal, the United States Government must develop an integrated approach to use data held across national security components.  I am, therefore, directing the establishment of a National Vetting Center, subject to the oversight and guidance of a National Vetting Governance Board, to coordinate the management and governance of the national vetting enterprise.

At this point, a lot is unclear about this change. First, it’s not clear what that means at a practical level. This National Immigration Vetting Center will fall under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security, but the memorandum doesn’t specify how the center will be funded, nor is it clear how vetting done at this center will differ from current screening procedures. The memorandum authorizes the center “to collect, store, share, disseminate, and use accurate and timely biographic, biometric, and contextual information in support of immigration enforcement and border security, including with respect to individuals who (i) seek a visa, a visa waiver, or other immigration benefit, or a protected status; (ii) attempt to enter the United States; or (iii) are subject to an immigration removal proceeding”—some of which are actions the State Department currently conducts. 

It was an article of faith for the Trump campaign that the vetting of immigrants is a flawed, broken process—a thought White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders echoed when she explained the new vetting center, saying, “The Federal Government’s current vetting efforts are ad hoc,” but that is simply not so. It is already a lengthy, rigorous, investigative process that already collects and analyzes the same data that the center is called to examine.

At this point, there is little concrete in the proposal, so it’s hard to know how to respond. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen said of the measure, “We’ve put in place tougher vetting and tighter screening for all individuals seeking to enter the United States,” but we don’t know in this context what “tougher” and “tighter” means. It is also not clear that the center won’t be redundant. The memorandum doesn’t call for the end of the State Department’s processes; it simply adds the National Immigration Vetting Center. In fact, it calls for the Secretary of State to help establish the center, along with the Attorney General, the Director of National Intelligence, and the Secretary of Homeland Security. Still, the creation of a National Immigration Vetting Center and locating it within DHS sends the signal that the current administration views immigrants first as security risks, and that is cause for concern.

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