Background checks: The Achilles’ heel of immigration reform

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Much of the discussion concerning immigration and accepting refugees from foreign war zones has revolved around background checks. Regardless of whether you’re attending a Democratic, Republican, or Libertarian speech on immigration, every candidate has stated in one way or another that a background check will be a deciding factor in allowing someone to enter the United States. Recently, the Obama administration announced that it is planning to increase the number of refugees it will allow into the U.S. to 110,000, a 57 percent boost since 2015.

According to an interview with NBC News regarding the upcoming increase in refugees, an administration official insisted that the new arrivals under the revised plan will undergo “rigorous screening” before they are allowed in the country.  On the other side of the aisle, Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump called for “extreme vetting” of immigrants coming into the US. However, as an experienced investigator, I can’t help but question the logistical details behind these statements, regardless of who is saying them.

{mosads}The truth is, criminal background information is based on the laws of country in question, as well as the quality of record-keeping and their relationship with the U.S. While some countries still only keep paper records, many retain criminal records at local jurisdictions and have no centralized database in the way that the US, Canada, the UK and many European Union countries do.  Therefore, it is common in many countries that each city, state, or province must be searched separately to determine if a criminal history exists on the applicant. To complicate matters even more, each jurisdiction also has its own rules and regulations as to how records are kept and released, with many record queries only covering a period of two to three years.  This is in sharp contrast to the FBI-managed Interstate Identification Index, which keeps arrest and conviction information on file for life.

The truth is that we cannot simply access trusted background data from certain places at all. If the country the immigrant or refugee flees from is war torn, has an unstable government, or has no diplomatic relationship with the US (think Syria, Libya, North Korea, etc.) then we will have no way to access their records. If criminal records on recent arrestees was lost at Orleans Parish Prison and the New Orleans Police headquarters following Hurricane Katrina, what can we expect  the state of record keeping in Aleppo or Benghazi to be right now?

Another major concern is naming conventions in many of the countries from which immigrants to the United States are coming from. In predominantly Muslim countries, many names have a description of god in them and a patronymic (a naming convention in which the father or even the grandfather’s names are cited within the name of the individual). Therefore, not only are there very common surnames, but there are going to be numerous people with the same first and middle names as well.  In Latin American countries, many people carry both the father and mother’s family names.  Many Latin American surnames come from the decedents of the Spanish settlers of the Americas. Therefore, there are millions of Latin Americans with the names García, Fernández, González, Rodríguez, López, and Martínez among others. 

Consequently,, there is a significant possibility of someone with a criminal history entering the United States by passing themselves off as someone with a similar name. The possibility of someone with a clean record being confused with someone with a record is also a distinct possibility. This was a major reason why, despite the efforts of a congressional sit-in, the Terrorism Watch List couldn’t be used to restrict people from exercising their Second Amendment right to own a firearm. As I stated in a prior piece, too many people share names, approximate ages, and descriptions of those who are on the watch list.


Think about Brian De Palma’s 1983 film “Scarface”, which dramatically depicted how criminals were able to enter the US during the Mariel boatlift of 1980. At the time, Cuba had no diplomatic relations with the U.S. and did not share their records with us. When as many as 125,000 Cubans reached Florida, it was discovered that a number of the refugees had been released from Cuban jails and mental health facilities. Without any way to check, the U.S. had to simply document the stories provided by the refugees and house them in squalid camps throughout the Miami area.  Now, consider the question of how we are to “rigorously screen” or “extremely vet” anyone arriving from places like Syria or Libya at this time in their countries history?

In addition to the limited scope of searching particular local international jurisdictions, consider the cost of international background screenings, which would take significantly more manpower to accomplish, and be substantially longer. This is why I am skeptical of claims from Clinton and Obama that immigration and refugee acceptance would be reliable and safe because of stringent “background checks”. This is especially problematic because the same politicians in question support “sanctuary cities”, wherein local mayors instruct their local law enforcement agencies to ignore federal immigration holds and not notify ICE or CBP if an illegal immigrant is in custody.

However, I am just as skeptical of Donald Trump’s claims regarding banning Muslim Immigration into the the United States, considering many countries do not list religion on their documents, and many refugees come without paperwork and can tell us anything about their religious affiliation should they chose to.  Furthermore, without using local law enforcement for the checking of immigration status, I have serious questions as to how the US could afford funding for a centralized database for visas and immigration status in addition to 100,000 more federal agents to enforce Trump’s deportation claims.  The building of a border wall and mass-deportation creates a massive logistical challenge that, even with the political will to do it (which does not currently exist on either side of the aisle), isn’t not within our budget to accomplish.

What is needed is for our candidates and elected leaders in federal, state and local office to consult with professionals from immigration and law enforcement to best approach this issue.  Simply using catchphrases that have no possibility of working is not a responsible approach to any problem. Without pausing and seriously analyzing the logistical questions around each approach to addressing illegal immigration and refugee acceptance, the issue will not be fixed regardless of who we elect president.

Mannes is a national subject matter expert in public safety and regular contributor to The Hill. He serves as a member of the Pierce College Criminal Justice Studies Advisory Board in Philadelphia and is a Governor on the Executive Board of InfraGard, the FBI-coordinated public-private partnership for critical infrastructure protection. Follow him on Twitter @PublicSafetySME


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






Tags Background checks border security Donald Trump Immigration Immigration reform Terrorism

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