A Station for Everyone
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

After Terror Attacks, U.S. Immigration Policy Is Scrutinized


And let's dig deeper now into an issue that's on the minds of many Americans and one that has taken center stage in the presidential campaign. It is how best to keep dangerous people from entering the United States. There's so many federal agencies involved in this and so many policies - immigration, border control, intelligence gathering. Now, we've heard proposals from some of the Republican presidential candidates. Donald Trump wants to ban Muslims from entering the United States for at least a time. Ted Cruz wants to block refugees from countries where ISIS is active. To talk about this, we have Doris Meissner on the line. She's a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute. She was a top immigration official in the Reagan Administration. And under President Clinton, she was commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Good morning to you.

DORIS MEISSNER: Good morning.

GREENE: Let me first ask you, if I can, the FBI director, James Comey, recently told lawmakers something that scared some of them, that the U.S. really knows precious little about what people may or may not have done if they spent time in a place like Syria. If that's the case, I mean, how effective is the U.S. immigration system in identifying people who might be dangerous?

MEISSNER: Well, the system has improved vastly since 9/11. Immigration screenings for visa purposes is transformed by data bases that are now linked, by the intelligence community being full involved in providing information and sharing information. And we're -admissions are concerned both through the visa system as well as refugees. We haven't had terrorist incidents since 9/11. Those systems continue to be improved. But I think where refugees are concerned, they're by far the safest group because they are the most thoroughly vetted. And they are also the most victimized by terrorism.

GREENE: Some Americans, you know, will hear you say that there have been no incidences of terrorism. But then they think of an event like San Bernardino and may or may not know, you know, the details of what the government might have known or not known about people coming into the country, this couple. But they might say, you know, there's a terrorism incident that really worries me.

MEISSNER: Well, the San Bernardino incident is very worrying. And it is a new twist. It is exactly the kind of example of how things are changing and how our systems need to adapt. Social media now is a powerful tool for terrorists. And so the ability of terrorists, and ISIS in particular, to reach into countries, be a source of radicalization, that's a very big new concern for the intelligence community. The question, though, is whether cutting off all people coming to the United States, either as refugees or from countries where there is an ISIS presence, is in any way an effective response to that.

GREENE: Now, many Americans would feel instinctively like it might be effective. I mean, if there are people who can slip through the cracks, if you say the challenge is growing because of social media and other things, they would say, I don't want one person to slip through the cracks. But you're saying banning people from a country where ISIS is active, as some have suggested, would be less effective. Why is that?

MEISSNER: Well, it's a terribly blunt tool. I mean, think about it. What ISIS is saying is that the West is at war with Islam. So if we cut off any contact with people from those parts of the world, if we make it impossible for everybody from those places to come to the United States, we're simply buying into the ISIS message.

GREENE: Is there a lesson or a moment from our nation's history that sort of strikes you, that you're reflecting on these days?

MEISSNER: We have had some very serious historical examples of excluding people. We excluded the Chinese by law in the 1800s. We interned Japanese during the Second World War. In all of those circumstances, we have come to realize that those were some of the most shameful things that we have done. So the lesson of history here is that being open and recognizing that people from around the world and from other nationalities, as nationality groups, are not a threat to our wellbeing, that's a lesson that we need to reflect on during this period.

GREENE: You were closely involved in - you know, in immigration. Is there something specific you can point to that you feel might reassure people today that - I don't know - people who spent time in Syria are really vetted in a way that people night not understand - anything reassuring you can tell us?

MEISSNER: Well, yes. The vetting of Syrians is the most intensive of any group that comes to the United States. They are interviewed by United Nations officials. They are interviewed by highly trained U.S. refugee officers. They are put through every screening tool in the intelligence community as well as criminal that we have. None of the people who have come through the refugee program, Syrian or other, since 9/11 - and that's about, close to 800,000 people - have been the source of terrorist activity in the United States. And at the end of the day, the ability to bring refugees to the United States from Syria and other countries in the Middle East is, in fact, a stabilizing force to the overall unrest that ISIS is trying to achieve. So the importance of continuing refugee resettlement far outweighs any risk.

GREENE: Doris Meissner is a former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Thank you so much for joining us this morning.

MEISSNER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.