Homeland Insecurity: The Fingerprint Gap

This week, the Department of Homeland Security made a singular contribution to the national debate about illegal immigration:

The revelation that 858 illegal immigrants from “countries of concern,” who were set for deportation, were mistakenly granted U.S. citizenship because the DHS didn’t have their fingerprints on file, according to an internal audit, puts the whole agonizing issue into perspective.

For it is premature to consider the practicality of building a wall or any other far-reaching solution before we have seen to it that the already existing laws and mechanisms for regulating the flow of immigrants and visitors are being followed effectively.

The Homeland Security Department’s inspector general John Roth explained that the oversight came about in the course of trying to make things better — while upgrading federal security.

The immigrants used different names or birthdates than their own to apply for citizenship; the discrepancies weren’t caught because their fingerprints were missing from government databases. The gap in fingerprints was created as older, paper records were left out of fingerprint databases created in the 1990s. The problem has been known to government officials since at least 2008, but they’re still playing catch-up.

Furthermore, as the report noted, when immigrants become naturalized, “these individuals retain many of the rights and privileges of U.S. citizenship, including serving in law enforcement, obtaining a security clearance, and sponsoring other aliens’ entry into the United States.”

A few actually managed to get aviation or transportation worker credentials, though they were later revoked. One became a law enforcement officer. Against all odds, none were caught in cahoots with IS or al-Qaida.

But don’t be misled into thinking that these 858 are the sum total of all those who have evaded the long arm of Homeland Security. Far from it.

Fingerprint sets from another 300,000 or more who were served with deportation orders or who are known fugitive criminals were also found missing, according to Roth. Of those, about 148,000 still await review before being added to the digital record.

The government has been working on this since 1996, when Congress gave its approval to a tracking system using biometrics technology. The program ran into administrative and technical problems, and expenditures of some $600 million have not yet produced the desired system for keeping people from overstaying their welcome. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has promised Congress that “aspects” of the solution will begin reaching the implementation stage by 2018.

These disclosures of the farcical attempts by bumbling bureaucrats at securing the homeland raise grave questions about the effectiveness of the Department of Homeland Security. They call into question the claims made by the Obama administration that adequate safeguards have been employed in the admission of 10,000 Syrian refugees, as well as the proposed 100,000 for the coming year.

Official assurances lose their credibility in the light of such disclosures. Jana Mason, a senior adviser to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, told the media that, “Of all the categories of persons entering the U.S., these refugees are the single most heavily screened and vetted.”

After preliminary screenings, the U.N. refers only about one percent of refugees to the United States for resettlement. These refugees then undergo multiple background checks by the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Terrorism Center and the Defense Department.

It sounds reassuring. Except, that further down the line, once they do get into the U.S., all those layers of security, all that high-level, ultra-serious scrutiny, all those reassuring statements, can be rendered absolutely worthless by a little thing like missing fingerprints.

Perhaps the time has come to reevaluate the Department of Homeland Security, to determine if it represents money well spent, or if it merely adds more layers of bureaucracy without providing much more security.

The DHS was established in a time of national crisis, when it was felt that a dramatic response was called for in the wake of 9/11. Fifteen years on, in a more sober moment, we have to consider whether its time has come and gone, and that it might be prudent to disestablish it and return the protection of the nation to traditional agencies, such as the FBI.

But one way or the other, with or without a Department of Homeland Security, at the very least, the current methods and procedures should be properly followed to avoid a repeat of such an embarrassing and potentially dangerous fiasco.