In-person interviews a critical step to fixing America's immigration system
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Nothing helps assess a person’s credibility and temperament better than a face-to-face interview, which is why most employers never hire someone they’ve only spoken with over the phone or by email.  The same holds true for prospective immigrants and refugees seeking admission to the U.S.

As part of President Trump’s Executive Order 1370, USCIS recently announced it will begin interviewing employment-based green card applicants, as well as relatives of approved refugees and asylees who have applied to come to the United States, rather than processing their applications solely on the basis of paper and online submissions. The agency will then phase in face-to-face interviews for all applications that, if granted, would allow an individual to reside permanently in the U.S. These measures will protect Americans from foreign terrorists who file bogus immigration applications and defend taxpayers against those wishing to enter the U.S. through fraud so they can access our extensive system of welfare programs.

Requiring face-to-face interviews with immigration applicants is a positive step toward a more effective vetting system. But one wonders why the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and now the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), ever thought it would be a good idea to abandon the practice in the first place. Yes, it is quicker to adjudicate immigration benefits applications on the basis of paper forms and supporting documentation. But information is the key ingredient in any good screening program. That information can’t come from the applicants alone. In many cases, they have too many good reasons to lie for their testimony to be considered legitimate on its face.

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Claimed facts must be verified and key details must be corroborated against objective sources. Government databases, commercial information services and social media platforms all play a key role in providing credible sources of information that can be used to validate claims. A paper-based process telegraphs to applicants where the government thinks there are problems with their cases. And the time that it takes to respond to written queries often allows applicants to produce false evidence that appears to bolster their fraudulent claims. 

 

In person, however, fraudsters often forget important details, alerting interviewers that something is amiss. Even the most effective computer analytics software can’t ferret out lies the way a careful human observer can. Over many years consular officers, immigration inspectors, and immigration adjudicators become familiar with patterns of conduct that criminals and terrorists use to perpetrate immigration fraud.

Adjudicating immigration applications on the basis of paper alone deprives the U.S. government of the opportunity to verify applicants’ claims by permitting a trained professional to observe their demeanor. Interviews allow experienced immigration officers to exercise their judgment about whether a particular applicant appears to be telling the truth or not. Most often, “bad guys” are uncovered by an astute interviewer who has a history of dealing with the type of fraud in question.

The INS frequently found itself faced with significant backlogs of pending immigration applications. Some of these delays were attributable to surges caused by changes in legislation. Others were caused by geopolitical events, for example: increases in refugee and asylum applications from war torn regions. Still others can be chalked up to a lack of resources or poor management practices. The one constant, however, was a tendency to decrease backlogs by cutting corners, without taking into account the subsequent effects on public safety and national security. Eliminating interviews to make adjudications faster is a perfect example.

But rather than being criticized for cutting corners, INS and DHS were praised for processing applications more quickly. In reality, however, all they were doing was adjudicating them poorly. The result has been a seemingly endless parade of criminals, human rights abusers and terrorists who made their way into the United States and were issued green cards and granted citizenship. Recently denaturalized Palestinian terrorist Rasmieh Odeh is a case in point.

The best way to protect the American public from those who want to exploit our legal immigration system for nefarious purposes is to keep them out in the first place. And the simplest way to detect fraud in the pipeline is to rely on the bright, well-trained men and women who work for the Departments of State and Homeland Security. Their collective experience and accumulated wisdom is also a potent deterrent to would be foreign outlaws. Skilled civil servants with the authority to interview applicants and say “No” to questionable claims raises the bar for future perpetrators of fraud, thereby discouraging all but the most determined criminals and terrorists.

In-person immigration interviews won’t cure all the security problems associated with our immigration system. They’re one step in a series of small corrections being made by the Trump administration. But they’re definitely an easy, cost-effective step in the right direction.

Matt O’Brien is the former chief of the National Security Division within the Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. He has also served as assistant chief counsel in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s New York district. He is currently the director of research at the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.