Thumbnail image for newspaper lady.jpgWith more than three decades of experience under my belt, I like to fancy myself an expert in immigration.  Yet however much I think I understand the subject, new things surface that blow my mind and puncture my inflated sense of self.  I have come to realize that much of what I “know,” I merely surmise or sense. It’s like looking at an arabesque from a distance, and then homing in, and being stunned by unnoticed details.

Such was my experience reading the prepared remarks and listening to opening statements, testimony and the questioning of government witnesses at a March 6 subcommittee hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee.  Convened by Rep. Candice Miller (R-MI), Chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, the hearing delved into efforts by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of State to deter, detect and apprehend visa overstayers, a problem population that Rep. Miller described as comprising 40% of all illegal immigration in America. 

The video of the hearing, “From the 9/11 Hijackers to Amine el-Khalifi: Terrorists and the Visa Overstay Problem,” offers an eye-popping view behind the purdah of government data collection in the immigration space.  The statistics-laden statements of ICE’s Peter T. Edge and John Cohen and of State’s David Donahue are even more revealing.

Here are revelations, from ICE, that were new to me:

  1. ICE now conducts visa security investigations at 19 high-risk visa adjudication posts in 15 countries. In FY 2012 to date, VSP [Visa Security Program] has screened 452,352 visa applicants and, in collaboration with DOS colleagues, determined that 121,139 required further review. Following the review of these 121,139 applications, ICE identified derogatory information on more than 4,777 applicants.
  2. [ICE’s] Counterterrorism and Criminal Exploitation Unit (CTCEU) is the first national program dedicated to the enforcement of nonimmigrant visa violations. Today, through the CTCEU, ICE proactively develops cases for investigation in cooperation with the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) and the United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) Program.
  3. These programs enable ICE to access information about the millions of students, tourists, and temporary workers present in the United States at any given time, and to identify those who have overstayed or otherwise violated the terms and conditions of their admission.
  4. Each year, the CTCEU analyzes records of hundreds of thousands of potential status violators after preliminary analysis of data from the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) and US-VISIT, along with other information. After this analysis, CTCEU determines potential violations that warrant field investigations and/or establishes compliance or departure dates from the United States.
  5. Between 15,000 and 20,000 of these records are analyzed in-house each month. Since the creation of the CTCEU in 2003, nearly 2 million such records using automated and manual review techniques have been analyzed. On average, ICE initiates approximately 6,000 investigative cases annually and assigns them to our special agents in the field for further investigation, resulting in over 1,800 administrative arrests per year.
  6. Biometric information sharing between the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Criminal Justice Information Services (FBI-CJIS) and US-VISIT is the foundation of Secure Communities’ use of Automated Biometric Identification System (IDENT)/Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) interoperability.
  7. Through Secure Communities’ use of IDENT/IAFIS interoperability, aliens—including those who have overstayed or otherwise violated their immigration status— who are encountered by law enforcement may be identified as immigration violators when fingerprints are submitted to the FBI-CJIS’s biometric database, IAFIS, and then to DHS/US-VISIT’s biometric database, IDENT.
  8. Secure Communities’ use of this technology is deployed in over 2,300 jurisdictions in 46 states and territories. US-VISIT also analyzes biographical entry and exit records stored in its Arrival and Departure Information System to further support DHS’s ability to identify international travelers who have remained in the United States beyond their periods of admission.
  9. ICE receives or coordinates nonimmigrant overstay and status violation referrals from US-VISIT Mission Support Services from three unique sources, which include: the typical overstay violation; a biometric watch list notification; and a CTCEU Visa Waiver Enforcement Program (VWEP) nomination.

Equally stunning were the following stats from State:

  1. State maintains derogatory information in 42.5 million records found in the Consular Lookout and Support System (CLASS), its online database of visa lookout records. CLASS has grown more than 400 percent since 2001.
  2. Almost 70 percent of CLASS records come from other agencies, including DHS, the FBI, and the DEA. CLASS also includes unclassified records regarding known or suspected terrorists (KSTs) from the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB), which is maintained by the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center (TSC) and contains data on KSTs nominated by all U.S. government sources.
  3. State also screens visa applicants’ names against the historical visa records in its Consular Consolidated Database (CCD). A system-specific version of the automated CLASS search algorithm runs the names of all visa applicants against the CCD to check for any prior visa applications, refusals, or issuances. DHS and other federal agencies have broad access to the CCD, which contains more than 151 million immigrant and nonimmigrant visa records covering the last 13 years.
  4. In January 2012, more than 20,000 officers from DHS, the FBI, and the Departments of Defense, Justice, and Commerce submitted more than two million visa record queries in the course of conducting law enforcement and/or counterterrorism investigations.
  5. Visa applicants’ fingerprints are screened against DHS and FBI systems, which between them contain the available fingerprint records of terrorists, wanted persons, immigration law violators and criminals. In 2011, consular posts transmitted more than 8.6 million fingerprint submissions to these systems, and received from them more than 221,000 derogatory and criminal history records.
  6. State uses facial recognition technology to screen visa applicants against a watchlist of photos of known and suspected terrorists obtained from the TSC, as well as the entire gallery of visa applicant photos contained in State’s CCD.
  7. In April 2008, consular officers at posts abroad obtained access to arrival and departure data for non-U.S. citizen travelers contained in the DHS Arrival Departure Information System (ADIS).  State began running automated ADIS checks for every visa applicant in June 2011.
  8. Consular officers submitted more than 366,000 Security Advisory Opinion (SAO) requests in FY 2011.
  9. Since 2001, State has revoked approximately 60,000 visas for a variety of reasons, including nearly 5,000 for suspected links to terrorism.
  10. As soon as information is established to support a revocation (i.e., information that could lead to an inadmissibility determination), a “VRVK” entry code showing the visa revocation is added to CLASS, as well as to biometric identity systems, and then shared in near-real time (within about 15 minutes) with the DHS lookout systems used for border screening.

swallowing a wire.jpgWith so much data floating in federal ether, an ancient Roman interrogatory naturally came to mind: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who will guard the guards themselves?) The question is not so far-fetched because we learned this week that although our system usually entails oversight by the judiciary of the other two branches of government, the incumbent Attorney General thinks otherwise. “Due process,” he declaimed in justifying the targeted killing of a nasty American citizen, does not necessarily entail “judicial process.” 

There are many other reasons why all of this free-floating federal data frightens me: 

  1. Government officials sometimes break the law. Witness the killing last month of an ICE official by an ICE official. Consider the ICE travel-reimbursement kickback scheme revealed recentlyRecall the DHS insider data-hacking scandal of last year. Remember the State Department employees’ improper access to the U.S. passport applications of celebrities in the near-distant past.  Realize that even “Concerned Foreign Service Officers” feel victimized by the mis-use of investigative power: “A page of advice for [consular and other foreign service officers] who might lose their [security] clearances:  ‘Expect to be lied to.'” 
  2. Foreign governments play one-up-manship, monkey-see-monkey-do and tit-for-tat. France’s National Assembly on March 6 passed a law proposing the creation of a new biometric ID card for the country’s 45 million French citizens. Brazil decides to fingerprint arriving U.S. citizens. Russia and the U.S. get into a retaliatory visa smackdown.
  3. First they came for the foreigners, and then they came for me. E-Verify was supposed to prevent the employment in the U.S. of unauthorized non-citizens.  Then, U.S. citizen passport application data was fed into the system.  Customs and Border Protection was formed as a response to 9/11 and now U.S. citizens’ laptops are searched at ports of entry without probable cause.  The REAL ID Act is passed to prevent unauthorized immigrants from gaining employment through forged driver licenses, and now several states have passed Voter ID laws that disenfranchise mostly the young and the poor and keep them from the polling booth. 
  4. Innocent people are turned away at America’s door or separated from their American Citizen family members. This happens all too often.  The most recent victim, Pitingo, a Spanish Flamenco-Soul singer who did not make his U.S. debut last Friday at the Manhattan Center as scheduled, reportedly because his name, Antonio Manuel Alvarez Velez, common in the Spanish-speaking world, “matches that of someone on the U.S. terrorism watch list”.  Even more widespread is ICE’s Secure Communities Program — a home-wrecking initiative that to my astonishment Rep. Miller described at the hearing as “excellent, excellent” — even though 21% of persons deported through S-Comm have never been convicted of a crime.

Ironically, in the same week as the subcommittee hearing, civil rights and immigrant rights marchers retraced the path of Rev. Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery 47 years ago.   Just as in 1965, no less than 2012, abuse of legal power against some threatens the liberty of all. Take a look at the video clip below if you need any reminding.

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