More Security Databases Won't Make Us Safer

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 19:  Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) reads quotes testimony from Homeland Security Secretary
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 19: Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) reads quotes testimony from Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and FBI Director James Comey during his weekly news conference at the U.S. Captiol Visitors Center November 19, 2015 in Washington, DC. Ryan said the legislation passed by the House Thursday -- which bars Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entering the U.S. unless they pass strict background checks -- is very urgent and that he is not playing politics with the safety of the United States. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Republicans in Congress are under the mistaken assumption that more extensive security screenings via biometric databases and new administrative checks will make us safer. It will not.

In reality, becoming too reliant on technology during screenings undermines our most valuable security asset--human intelligence. USCIS and border officers are the frontline of our security apparatus but are understaffed, undertrained, and underpaid. If Congress is serious about making us safer and protecting Syrian refugees, they should invest in the people interviewing and processing refugee resettlement applications to empower them to make more informed decisions.

The xenophobic bill passed by the House of Representatives on Thursday is policymaking by committee of the worst kind. It creates additional bottlenecks at the top of our security agencies and reeks of nationalistic politics, all while stoking an irrational fear of Iraqis and Syrians who are fleeing the violence from ISIL and Assad.

The bill proposes that the US should only accept Syrian refugees with "unanimous concurrence" from the directors of DHS, FBI, and national intelligence that each individual is not a threat to the US. It is utterly unworkable to ask three of our highest level officials to review individual applications. There is no evidence to suggest that the current security screening process is ineffective.

Let's look at our track record: the US is not new to refugee resettlement. In fact, the US resettled more than 70,000 refugees in 2014--more than all other countries combined. We have accepted large numbers of refugees through the US Refugee Admission Program since the 1980s. Before that, we resettled more than 100,000 Vietnamese after the withdrawal of the US military. More than 125,000 Cuban refugees fled to Florida in 1980s in shoddy boats similar to those carrying Syrians to Greece. Over the last 35 years, security processes evolved and improved--sometimes with the assistance of new technology, sometimes through mistakes.

After 2001, the 9/11 Commission reorganized agencies under the Department of Homeland Security, forcing interagency cooperation and sharing of intelligence. None of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were refugees but additional security databases were added to the screening process regardless. When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, the Defense Department began compiling a specialized database on Iraqi insurgents, including information on detainees in prisons such as Abu Ghraib and fingerprints pulled from IEDs. Despite the risks, the US continued to accept Iraqi refugees, resettling 126,216 between 2003-2014. Sweden, often considered to have the world's most generous refugee policies, accepted 32,440 Iraqis during the same period: 0.34% of Sweden's population. The US would need to resettle more than one million refugees in order to match this proportion. In addition, Sweden completed these screenings without a military database from Iraq, relying on collaborated interviews and only three databases (rather than the 8 used by the US).

If we really care about security, we should invest in people not databases. We should prioritize in USCIS officers who are often burned out from working repeat tours overseas. They need better training and incentives to do the essential work they do.

USCIS officers travel to neighboring countries to interview asylum seekers in-person and are the best tool for detecting previous or potential terrorists. They have specialized knowledge about regions and conflicts, in addition to working with interpreters who can place dialects down to specific neighborhoods in Damascus. USCIS officers triangulate knowledge collected in previous interviews by UNHCR or other referring agencies and follow-up on specifics in their applications. They flag potential security cases for further review; they are our eyes and ears on the ground.

When security relies too heavily on biometric databases, it's like the student who goes to the Internet for every answer. At some point, Google makes you stupid and sloppy. We need to cultivate talented employees with expert regional knowledge and interviewing skills to detect fraudulent asylum applications. We should not conflate more layers of bureaucracy with vigilance.

Gil Loescher notably characterized US refugee policy as "calculated kindness". Now is the time to do the math: the United States can improve our security by investing in people not databases or higher walls.