CLEARly Muddying the Fight Against Terror

Bruce Schneier
News.com, June 16, 2004

Danny Sigui lived in Rhode Island. After witnessing a murder, he called 911 and became a key witness in the trial. In the process, he unwittingly alerted officials of his immigration status. He was arrested, jailed and eventually deported.

In a misguided effort to combat terrorism, some members of Congress want to use the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database to enforce federal civil immigration laws. The idea is that state and local police officers who check the NCIC database in routine situations, will be able to assist the federal government in enforcing our nation's immigration laws.

The CLEAR Act and HSEA will certainly result in more people being arrested for immigration violations but will probably have zero effect on terrorism. There are a limited number of immigration agents at the Department of Homeland Security, so asking the 650,000 state, local and tribal police officers to help would be a significant "force multiplier."

The problem is that the Clear Law Enforcement for Criminal Alien Removal (CLEAR) Act and the Homeland Security Enhancement Act (HSEA) aren't going to help fight terrorism. Even worse, this will put an unfunded financial burden on local police forces and is likely to make us all less safe in the long run.

Security is a trade-off. It's not enough to ask: "Will increased verification of immigration status make it less likely that terrorists remain in our country?" We have to ask: "Given the police resources we have, is this the smartest way to deploy them?"

The CLEAR Act and HSEA will certainly result in more people being arrested for immigration violations but will probably have zero effect on terrorism. Some of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists were in the country legally. Others were easily able to keep their heads down. It's not as if terrorists are waiting to be arrested, if only the police have sufficient information about their immigration status. It's a nice theory, but it's just not true.

And none of this comes cheaply.

The cost of adding this information to criminal databases easily runs into the tens of millions of dollars. The cost to local police of enforcing these immigration laws is likely to be at least 10 times that. And this cost will have to be borne by the community, either through extra taxes or by siphoning police from other duties.

I can't think of a single community where the local police are sitting around idly, looking for something else to do. Forcing them to become immigration officers means less manpower to investigate other crimes. And this makes us all less safe.

Terrorists represent only a very small minority of any culture. One of the most important things that a good police force does is maintain good ties with the local community. If you knew that every time you contacted the police, your records would be checked for unpaid parking tickets, overdue library fines and other noncriminal violations, how would you feel about police? It's far more important that people feel confident and safe when calling the police.

When a Muslim immigrant notices something fishy going on next door, we want him to call the police. We don't want him to fear that the police might deport him or his family. We don't want him hiding if the police come to ask questions. We want him and the community on our side.

By turning police officers into immigration agents, the CLEAR Act and HSEA will discourage the next Danny Sigui from coming forward to report crimes or suspicious activities. This will harm national security far more than any security benefits received from catching noncriminal immigration violations. Add to that the costs of having police chasing immigration violators rather than responding to real crimes, and you've got a really bad security trade-off.

earlier essay: The Witty Worm: A New Chapter in Malware
later essay: Unchecked Police And Military Power Is A Security Threat
categories: Laws and Regulations, National Security Policy, Terrorism
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