New York Times
By Ron Nixon
January 30, 2017
WASHINGTON — When President Trump signed his executive order on refugee policy, he said the move was to keep terrorists from entering the United States.
In a later Twitter message on Sunday, Mr. Trump said: “Our country needs strong borders and extreme vetting, NOW. Look what is happening all over Europe and, indeed, the world — a horrible mess.”
But the Department of Homeland Security already has several vetting systems that have stopped thousands of people from boarding planes before the can enter the United States.
The agency has hundreds of agents stationed in dozens of countries around the world as the first line of defense to identify and address potential threats at the earliest point possible.
Here’s a look at what is already in place.
The preclearance program is run by the Customs and Border Protection agency. Customs officers are stationed at 16 airports around the world and screen passengers before they board planes to the United States. Customs officers based at foreign airports collect fingerprints and photos and check travel documents before allowing passengers to board a plane traveling to the United States. The officers also conduct inspection interviews with passengers and monitor their behavior before they are allowed to fly.
According to the Government Accountability Office, data from the agency show that it identified and stopped over 22,000 high-risk air travelers in the fiscal year 2015 through these predeparture programs. The customs officers at these locations determined that 10,648 of the approximately 16 million air travelers seeking admission to the United States through such locations were inadmissible. Many of those who were denied entry onto flights bound for the United States were stopped for national security reasons.
Created in 2004, the Immigration Advisory Program is intended to prevent terrorists and high-risk passengers from boarding commercial aircraft to the United States. Unlike the preclearance programs, customs officers in this program are unarmed, plainclothes officers who discreetly help airline and foreign security employees with a review of passenger reservation and ticketing data on flights bound for the United States.
These officers also assist foreign countries with document examination to check for fraud and provide training for airlines and foreign security personnel. The officers make nonbinding “no board” recommendations to air carriers and the host governments to prevent these passengers from boarding flights headed to the United States. Airlines typically adhere to the recommendations, even though they are not required to. These customs officers serve strictly as advisers in the foreign countries where they are. They hold no law enforcement authority.
The Visa Security Program
Immigration and Customs Enforcement arm of Homeland Security operates the Visa Security Program.
Special agents with expertise in immigration law and counterterrorism are stationed at diplomatic posts around the world to help State Department officials prevent ineligible applicants from receiving visas. The special agents research and investigate visa applicants, examine the documents submitted with the visa application, and conduct interviews with applicants.
Over the last two-years, visa security agents reviewed over two million visa applications, helping State Department officials refuse about 8,600 applicants, according to I.C.E. officials. Of these refusals, over 2,200 applicants a year had some known or suspected connection to terrorism or terrorist organizations, the agency said.
Visa waiver restrictions
Last year, the Obama administration announced changes to the visa-waiver program that would make it harder for travelers to enter the United States from Europe if they had dual citizenship from Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria, or had visited one of those countries in the last five years. The administration later added Libya, Somalia, and Yemen.
About 38 countries, mostly in Europe, participate in the visa-waiver program, which allows their citizens to visit the United States without a visa on trips of 90 days or less. Under the changes, visitors meeting the criteria would not be denied entry, but would have to go through the more rigorous visa applicant process.
The changes were in response to legislation passed by Congress that also requires countries to share more information about travelers and authorizes Homeland Security to terminate any country’s participation in the visa-waiver program if it does not share the security data. The legislation also strengthens efforts to detect and prevent passport fraud.
The changes to the visa-waiver program came after the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 people and injured 368. Because the attackers were all European citizens, some lawmakers and counterterrorism officials feared that terrorists could exploit the visa-waiver program and travel to the United States to commit similar attacks.
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