Congress must press Trump on 'extreme vetting' in practice

Congress must press Trump on 'extreme vetting' in practice
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When President Trump ordered “Homeland Security to step up our already Extreme Vetting Program” following this Halloween’s terror attack in Manhattan, and said the next day that more rigorous vetting of people entering the U.S. would be “immediately implement(ed),” he was  affirming a policy he’s endorsed several times since his campaign began.

Despite the Supreme Court's decision to allow the ban to take effect while court challenges proceed, his attempts to impose a Muslim ban have so far largely been rejected by the courts and President Trump has tied it to extreme vetting: “The Muslim ban is something that in some form has morphed into an extreme vetting from certain areas of the world.” But if extreme vetting is thus an important feature of the administration’s national security policy, what does it mean in practice? For all its rhetorical flair, we know little about how extreme vetting is defined or how it’s being implemented. That’s why Congress needs to step in and provide oversight.

In a Capitol Hill briefing on extreme vetting today, we’ll highlight a recent Brennan Center report that explores the security features of the U.S. visa system. Proposed and enacted changes to the U.S. vetting system under this White House have included: developing a technology that tries to predict the value of people’s contributions to society as well as their propensities for violence; collecting 15 years’ worth of detailed information as well as social media data from certain visa applicants and submitting them to a months-long interagency review process; considerably increasing the amount of paperwork and expanding interview requirements for immigration applications; toughening the standard for renewing foreign work visas; and reducing the rate at which visa applications are processed.

And this list doesn’t even contain significant changes to the immigration system contemplated by the president’s travel ban.

Assessing the impacts of each of these policies — and how they fit into this administration’s broader immigration regime — is an enormous challenge for the American public. Importantly, many of the above changes have been buried in regulatory notices or were uncovered by probing reporters — they’ve rarely been clearly categorized as “extreme vetting” or fully ventilated in prominent public forums.

When the president says he’s ordered “(The Department of) Homeland Security to step up … Extreme Vetting,” we are left to grapple with White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ banal repackaging of longstanding U.S. government goals — like “improving our intelligence streams” – to decipher what he means. But we need more details: shifts in vetting policy could have a massive impact on the lives of thousands of potential visitors, their families, and American businesses and universities.

Whether or not to build a physical border wall is something Americans care about and the question is given a central place in discourse – extreme vetting and its role in the “bureaucratic wall that could be more effective than any concrete and metal one,” as some commentators have put it, deserves to be brought to light and given the same treatment.

Transparency is especially critical given reports of significant intra-executive conflict on these national security decisions. Current DHS and State Department officials have alleged that the administration has not consulted available evidence, or selectively chosen intelligence, to inform its initiatives. A politically diverse range of over 40 former national security officials have publicly feared “long-term damage to our national security and foreign policy interests” if the president were to implement his travel ban, for which the underlying assessments have been withheld.

And just recently, internal DHS auditors warned Congress that the department was withholding from the public a report on the administration’s possible law breaking related to its implementation of the first travel ban.

A good first step would be for Congress to press the administration for more information on extreme vetting. It delegates authority to the president to enforce the immigration laws, and has not in the past been shy to hold hearings to learn more about topics including changes to vetting policy, the president’s exercise of immigration authority, or visa security more generally.

Hearings like these give the public a valuable opportunity to hear from executive branch officials as well as experts across the political spectrum on the “work performed by DHS and the State Department to prevent terrorists from gaining access to our Homeland,” as Chairman Michael McCaulMichael Thomas McCaulHouse passes legislation to crack down on business with companies that utilize China's forced labor House Republicans blame Chinese cover-up for coronavirus pandemic Engel subpoenas US global media chief Michael Pack MORE (R-Texas) of the Homeland Security Committee said during his opening statement in a May hearing on “Examining Visa Security.”

In doing so, such hearings give us the chance to examine the evidence underlying the president’s policy decisions, consider competing interpretations of that evidence, and hold our government accountable.

Harsha Panduranga is a fellow in the Liberty & National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.