By Daniel Gonzalez
April 24, 2013
The 11 million immigrants in the country illegally would have to pass national-security and criminal-background checks before receiving legal status under an immigration overhaul bill the Senate is considering, but some critics say the federal government would have a hard time adequately screening such a large number of people.
Federal immigration officials conducting the background checks also would have difficulty screening out potential terrorists because the checks are limited to information contained in government databases and terrorist-watch lists, critics say.
"If you are not in an existing database as a problem or there is not something in your background that raises a red flag, you are going to breeze through," said James Carafano, a vice president and national-security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank. "It's far from a panacea."
National security has become a major concern in the debate over immigration reform in wake of the Boston Marathon bombing.
On Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that the sweeping immigration overhaul introduced last week in the Senate would improve national security by helping authorities know who is in the country.
In addition to other reforms, the bill would allow most of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country to apply for provisional legal status. After 10 years, they could apply for permanent residency, and then, after three more years, citizenship.
The bill requires immigrants applying for legal status to register with the government by filing applications that include personal information and requires them to submit fingerprints and other biometric data. The bill also requires them to pass national-security and criminal-background checks each time they apply to renew their provisional status and when they apply for permanent residency.
Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican and a member of the "Gang of Eight" senators who crafted the bill, said the measure would improve national security because it would subject illegal immigrants to background checks that are sufficiently thorough.
"It will be a daunting task to do it, but we need to," Flake said. "We have to because those who have aggravated felonies on their record will not have the opportunity to adjust (their status)."
He also has said the bill would establish a better system to track when immigrants enter the country and when they leave.
However, some Republicans are trying to slow down movement of the bill that the bipartisan group of senators introduced. The opponents want to know if the Boston Marathon bombing suspects exploited any loopholes in the nation's immigration system or whether the bill should addres any national-security flaws.
"To give amnesty to millions — without knowing whether some of them want to do us harm — is to jeopardize American lives," Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said in a written statement. "We should go slow before making any changes to immigration policy that don't put the interests of Americans first."
Authorities have no indication so far that the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, violated U.S. immigration laws.
The two brothers are ethnic Chechens from Russia and came to the U.S. legally about a decade ago when their family sought asylum. Both became legal permanent residents. The younger brother later became a naturalized U.S. citizen, but the Department of Homeland Security turned down Tamerlan's application to naturalize after a routine background check showed that the FBI had interviewed him in 2011, federal officials told The New York Times.
U.S. officials said Tuesday that Tamerlan, who was killed, was an ardent reader of jihadist websites and extremist propaganda.
However, such activity alone most likely would not show up in an immigration background check, Carafano said.
"You could spend your entire life on jihadist websites, and unless you are on a terrorist-watch list or in some kind of database or unless there is something very strange in your application that flags them, you could be the leader of the local I Hate America Club and they are not going to pick up on that," he said.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Department of Homeland Security agency responsible for conducting background checks for immigrants applying for immigration benefits including permanent residency and citizenship already is swamped with applications, Carafano said. That creates a long backlog for background checks.
Legalizing millions of undocumented immigrants although increasing legal immigration by granting permanent residency to millions of immigrants waiting for green cards would make it that much more difficult for the government to conduct timely background checks, he said.
"We've been down that road before post-9/11 where we dramatically expanded the number of people we did background checks on," Carafano said. "It's going to create an enormous strain."
Carafano also doubts the fines and fees that immigrants would be required to pay to legalize their status would be enough cover background check costs.
Flake said the fees and penalties called for in the bill should be sufficient to cover the costs of background checks, but if they fall short, Congress would have to appropriate money because the background checks are extremely important.
"This is part of coming out of the shadows," he said. "That's part of the benefit. We know who is here."
The background checks also would be used to determine who should be deported, Flake said.
"That is part of the benefit of having people go through background checks: to have a better idea of who is here," Flake said. "I can't image that anyone would object to deporting someone who comes up in these background checks as having aggravated felonies or ties to terrorism or something like that. That's a good thing if we find that."