Experts Warn of National Security Risks from DACA

Terrorism concerns should be taken into account in the debate over amnesty, former government officials say

As Congress debates amnesty for the so-called “dreamers” — beneficiaries of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act — some advocates of tighter immigration enforcement urge lawmakers to address an issue that has hardly been considered: national security.

While four out of five people who received protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program were born in Mexico, a small number come from countries that could pose security concerns because they are state sponsors of terrorism, or have governments too weak to provide relevant information to U.S. authorities.

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For instance, 2,980 of the DACA recipients were born in countries listed either in the temporary travel ban order issued by President Donald Trump earlier this year or in a new order that aims to permanently ban travelers from certain countries, according to figures released last month by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Others came from countries that are hostile to the United States. For instance, 200 people were born in Saudi Arabia, a hotbed of Islamic extremism, where 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were from. Another 10 came from Afghanistan, where the 16-year U.S. military involvement has engendered anti-American sentiment.

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And unlike refugees, who undergo intense background checks by both the United Nations and U.S. officials, DACA beneficiaries received only “lean and light” background checks. Matthew O’Brien, director of research at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said that means the government ran the applicants’ fingerprints though an FBI database but conducted no face to face interviews or review of the records they submitted.

O’Brien said the risk of terrorism is small but worth taking seriously given the large number of people who have participated in the program, which protects beneficiaries from deportation and provides documents allowing them to work legally in the United States.

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“It’s a relatively small number as a percentage, but you’re talking about 800,000 applicants,” said O’Brien, who previously served as chief of the National Security Division within the Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

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The government has canceled DACA for some 2,000 people, he noted, most likely because of criminal offenses. Trump has ordered the program to end on March 5.

O’Brien said a thorough background check would involve examining financial records and confirming the authenticity of documents such as high school diplomas and home addresses submitted by the applicants.

“You don’t know if you don’t check,” he said. “You have to look for indicators.”

Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, said Congress should insist on a full background check if it passes a law granting amnesty to illegal immigrants brought to America as children.

Vaughan said it is possible some of the DACA beneficiaries pose a threat to national security in addition to garden-variety immigration fraud.

“No USCIS adjudicator ever laid eyes on these individuals. We have no way of verifying their stories. We don’t know when they came.”

“I think it’s a legitimate concern … We know that the practice of the previous administration was to process these applications quickly,” she said. “It’s possible they could have missed some red flags.”

Vaughan, a former foreign service officer with the State Department, said Barack Obama’s administration held DACA applications to “almost laughable” standards. She said USCIS officials did not review original documents, only scanned materials. That made it harder to determine whether a document was a forgery.

She said in-person questioning, through which fraudulent stories might have fallen apart, also did not occur. The government more or less took the word of applicants that they met the criteria for DACA, including when they came to the United States.

“No USCIS adjudicator ever laid eyes on these individuals,” Vaughan said. “We have no way of verifying their stories. We don’t know when they came.”

She said a terrorist in his early 20s who managed to sneak past the U.S. Border Patrol could have applied for DACA, lying about when he came to the United States, listing a false home address and providing a forged high school diploma. She said that unless the applicant had a U.S. arrest record, it is very likely he would have received legal protection from DACA and be in a position for a pathway to citizenship under the proposed DREAM Act or similar legislation.

The government should start by conducting a benefit fraud assessment of DACA, said Vaughan. That would include double-checking the information provided by applicants, at least on a spot-check basis. Computer analysis could be used to search for unusual patterns, such as the same address’s being used multiple times or an unusually high number of applicants with diplomas from the same high school.

Vaughan said a source in the government once told her that the number of DACA students who were home-schooled appears to far exceed the rate for the general population.

Clare Lopez, a former CIA analyst and expert on Islamic extremism at the Center for Security Policy, said it is reasonable to apply extra scrutiny on dreamers from travel-ban countries and similar nations.

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“These countries are either failed states … or, as in the case of Iran, the regime, itself, has been declared the number-one sponsor of state terrorism in the world,” said Lopez, vice president of policy and programs at the Washington-based think tank.

Lopez noted that the parents of DACA recipients received no scrutiny from the government at all, “which I think is a shortcoming, a serious shortcoming.”

She said even a thorough background check with great cooperation from an applicant’s home country is unlikely to produce anything of value on someone who left that nation as a small child. A search for potential radicalization must include a wider evaluation.

“I don’t know why you wouldn’t look at the parents,” she said.

(photo credit, homepage images: Defend DACA, CC BY 2.0, by Molly Adams; photo credit, article images: Defend DACA, CC BY 2.0, by Molly Adams)

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