National Review Online, December 11, 2015
We can do a much better job of keeping criminals and terrorists out if we take screening processes seriously.
In recent weeks the president and his senior homeland-security officials have pulled out all the stops to assure Americans that the vetting process for immigrants and foreign visitors is robust and thorough — but that even the most fabulous system, such as ours, cannot possibly be expected to prevent the entry of every person who means us harm, as demonstrated by the success of San Bernardino terrorist Sayed Rezwan Farook in obtaining a visa for his fiancée and fellow jihadi Tashfeen Malik.
But additional information is emerging to show that, in fact, our screening process is not so great, and that Farook and Malik exhibited warning signs that should have raised flags at some point in the multi-step visa-application-review process. This process was significantly improved after 9/11 but has been undermined by the Obama administration's notorious rubber-stamp, "get to yes" policies, which aim to facilitate the admission of as many immigrants as possible.
Even at this preliminary stage, without access to all the details known to the government, it is possible to note some ways in which the screening system is inadequate to the threat, and how it might be improved — beyond the equally critical need to allow our career immigration and consular officials to do their jobs.
Much attention has focused on the State Department's review of Malik's visa application in Pakistan. But it was actually the Department of Homeland Security, specifically U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), that had the first opportunity to screen this couple.
According to some reports, even before he fell in love, Farook had come to the attention of U.S. counterterrorism officers as a result of contacts he had with others who were of interest to authorities. He apparently was not under investigation, but he had shown up as a dot of unknown importance.
This information no doubt would have been of interest to the USCIS officer reviewing Farook's petition for Malik's fiancée visa. Unfortunately, according to my sources, the USCIS protocols do not call for a full vetting of the person sponsoring the alien; only the alien herself is the subject of the kind of vetting that our homeland-security officials have been bragging about, which includes fingerprinting, iris scans, and consulting terror and criminal databases. This is a vulnerability that needs to be closed.
Of course, given the general track record of the current USCIS leadership on screening, I wouldn't expect this administration to actually allow the denial of many petitions. After all, this is the agency that approved work permits for an alarming number of known gang members and drunk-driving convicts under the auspices of the president's executive action, and offers a chance for political asylum to 90 percent of those who ask for it. One would think they might want officers to know if a potential terrorist, or even a convicted criminal, is trying to sponsor someone for a green card.
Now a former DHS agent has come forward to claim that the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties office in DHS headquarters (also known for its advocacy on behalf of illegal aliens) shut down his investigation that might have led authorities to connect Farook to a radical Islamic group in San Bernardino with ties to the mosque he attended and other terror plots — over concerns that Muslims were being profiled.
After USCIS gave the green light to Farook's petition, Malik was invited to make her application at the U.S. embassy in Islamabad. Thanks to a post-9/11 requirement imposed by Congress, following revelations (initially published in National Review) that the attackers had exploited a program that allowed many Saudis to bypass the in-person interview, Malik was subjected to questioning by a State Department official, as well as the more thorough watch-list and biometric criminal-history checks. The officer would have asked her how she met Farook, and examined his financial situation.
In addition, Malik's application likely would have been reviewed by an ICE agent working in the Visa Security Unit — but what value was added by this extra security review? Why did it not pick up on the alarming things readily discovered by news media reporters in the week after the attack: that her family apparently had ties to extremists, that the school she had been attending was apparently a radical madrassa, and that she had given a fake address on her application? Any one of these should have caused some concern, and ideally lawmakers will have a chance to determine if preventable mistakes were made. For years, the GAO and others have raised serious questions about the effectiveness of the visa-security units, and Congress has poured millions of dollars into improving them. Will the president knock some heads together now to make this a real priority? Or does he still think our process is good enough?
If our immigration-screening process is so good, then why is it that practically every time there is a terror attack in the United States involving a foreigner, when authorities start turning over rocks, there's always a case of marriage fraud under one of them? This time is no exception — how interesting that Farook's good friend, Enrique Marquez, who acquired the automatic weapons for him (and also was a licensed security guard!), got married to a Russian woman (an apparent exchange-visitor overstayer) about one year ago, whose sister (also a former exchange visitor) happens to be married to Farook's brother, Syed Raheel Farook (a Navy veteran!), even though Marquez apparently now lives with another woman described as his girlfriend, and neighbors say they never saw him with his "wife."
Soon after 9/11, DHS created the Fraud Detection and National Security directorate, with the mission to develop quality control, anti-fraud programs, and other operational improvements that would help prevent terrorists and others from exploiting our immigration programs. Among other improvements, this unit conducted painstaking audits of some of the most significant visa and benefits programs. It was discovered that the marriage-based category, as well as certain refugee, asylum, and guest-worker visa programs, were riddled with fraud and vulnerable to abuse. Rather than leading to reforms, the findings were suppressed soon after Obama took office, and the audit programs were shut down. Over time, the directorate's fraud investigators have been cordoned off from the rest of the agency, and their work marginalized.
In light of the repeated and chronic immigration-screening failures that have facilitated terror attacks, criminal enterprises, and increased illegal immigration, these quality-control audits need to be a requirement for each and every visa and benefits program we have, for both USCIS and the State Department. In addition, we must step up the screening of sponsors as well as applicants, and develop enhanced vetting procedures for all applicants coming from countries of national-security concern, such as Pakistan. Recent efforts by Obama officials to roll back the visa interview requirement, expand the Visa Waiver Program, and increase issuances of visas and work permits should be nipped in the bud. Finally, now that we have further evidence that our screening process is not quite as robust as we were told, Congress should reject the president's plan to resettle tens of thousands more refugees from Syria, in favor of providing more assistance where they are now residing.