A new National Vetting Center is being established pursuant to National Security Presidential Memorandum 9, signed by President Trump on February 6. The Center will coordinate the way agencies use biographic, biometric, and other data used to vet applicants for visas, admission to the United States, and immigration benefits, and in enforcement and removal (deportation) actions. The Center will be housed within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
National Vetting Governance Board
A National Vetting Governance Board appointed by agency heads will provide oversight of the Center.
The Board will consist of “six senior executives, one designated by each of the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Director of National Intelligence, and the Director of the Intelligence Agency.”
According to the Memorandum, each agency will fund its own participation in the Center. The Trump Administration will not make a separate funding request.
The Secretary of Homeland Security will designate a full-time senior officer or employee of DHS to serve as the director of the Center. The Secretary of State and the Attorney General will each designate a deputy director. The Director of National Intelligence will assign a senior official from that office or another Intelligence Community element to serve as the head of the Center’s support element.
Creation of the Center will realize in part Trump’s promise during his campaign to enact “extreme vetting” of people seeking to enter the country.
The Memorandum itself does not specify any changes to the vetting process. Agency heads have 6 months to jointly submit for presidential approval a plan a plan to implement the Memorandum.
To me, it’s disappointing that the Memorandum does not detail the reasons for establishing this Center in addition to or instead of current vetting mechanisms. Press statements about the Memorandum by both DHS and the White House have misleadingly claimed that current vetting is “ad hoc.” Trump has also repeatedly mischaracterized U.S. vetting procedures, suggesting during the campaign and into his presidency that some individuals have entered the U.S. without vetting. For example, in railing against the current visa lottery program, Trump has suggested individuals are randomly selected for entry to the US, leaving out the background screening procedures they must first pass.
The Memorandum makes no mention of current rigorous vetting mechanisms. To mention just a few:
- The National Targeting Center, run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which tracks passengers and cargo that could pose a threat to U.S. security
- The Security Advisory Opinion (SAO) process, a multi-agency security review of visa applicants coordinated by the State Department in Washington, DC
- The “Kingfisher Expansion” program, launched by the National Counterterrorism Center, which allows consular officials to directly check visa application information against classified government holdings like the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE)
The National Vetting Center is only one facet of the administration’s efforts to screen noncitizens. Separately, the administration has imposed the travel ban, a new set of questions for visa applicants subject to additional screening, a new interview requirement for employment-based permanent residence applicants already in the United States, and greater scrutiny of noncitizens’ social media.
It’s too early to tell what practical consequences the Center will have for visa applicants and others traveling to the United States. And it’s too early to tell what value the Center will add to national security. We can only hope that screening procedures are driven by legitimate security concerns, are mindful of civil rights and privacy concerns, and continue to allow legitimate travel by foreign nationals who bolster the U.S. economy and foster international exchanges. Hopefully screening procedures will not driven by the xenophobia that has characterized some aspects of the administration’s immigration policies. More will be known when an implementation plan is submitted by agencies to the President for approval.