Major Screening Gap: Sponsors of Immigrants Not Fully Vetted Under Current Policy

By Jessica M. Vaughan on December 15, 2015

According to an internal USCIS document, immigration officers are not routinely utilizing the full range of available database checks to identify high-risk individuals, such as San Bernardino jihadist Sayed Rezwan Farook, who are trying to sponsor an immigrant. The most extensive checks are done only on prospective immigrants, not sponsors. This is a significant gap in the screening process that has been known for years, but never corrected. It's an easy fix, and if USCIS had done so years ago, when it recognized the gap, the government might have been more cautious about admitting Farook's partner and fiancé, Tashfeen Malik, and perhaps others who pose a similar risk.

All alien applicants are run through several databases of information, including an FBI fingerprint check, FBI name check (which covers information in FBI files), and a TECS (Treasury Enforcement Communications Systems) check. The TECS check is designed to identify individuals suspected of or involved in violations of federal law and accesses general law enforcement warrants, lookouts, and the terror watch list, but does not receive a complete set of relevant information from the FBI.

In contrast, those who seek to sponsor immigrants, also known as petitioners, do not submit fingerprints and are checked only through TECS.

Back in 2008, the Fraud Detection and National Security Unit of USCIS studied the difference in results obtained from the FBI name checks and the TECS checks in identifying individuals who posed a security threat. Analysts pulled the records of approximately 1,800 individuals who had recently been identified within the pool of immigration benefits applicants as known or suspected terrorists. These individuals, who were either petitioners or benefits applicants (for visas, green cards, or other benefits), had all been flagged by the FBI name-check system. (Yes, I had the same thought, that's a lot of terrorists in about one year's worth of applicants!)

Yet only 19 percent of these known or suspected terrorists who were flagged in the FBI name check system also had records in TECS. In other words, the TECS check alone could have detected only a fifth of the known or suspected terrorists who were found involved in an immigration benefits application that year. Said the report: "This means the [national security] concerns would not have been identified outside the FBI name check process."

Considering that Farook apparently was known to counterterrorism officials as a person of interest, even though he had not been arrested, if USCIS had a policy requiring the FBI name check in addition to the TECS check, there would have been an opportunity to prevent the admission of Malik and possibly prevent an attack.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has announced that he is preparing a bill that would address this vulnerability, and many others, in the visa and benefits screening process. Given the many gaps in this process that we now know exist, and other emerging reports about the abundance of fake documents produced by ISIS that are available to anyone interested in hiding in the refugee flow, it would be prudent to hold off on further refugee admissions, and any immigration expansions, until these problems are fixed.