A CBP officer collects information from an enrollee during a Global Entry interview at the Ronald Reagan building. (Josh Denmark/Customs and Border Protection)

PERSPECTIVE: Vetting Center is Needed Collaboration for National Security

Whether you realize it or not, you are vetted every day of your life in some shape or fashion.

When you apply for a job, to a school or even an organization, it is not at all unusual to be vetted by someone. They want to know that you are who you say you are, what your background is, what type of background and skills you bring with you, and if you’re someone with whom they would want to be associated.

None of that is a surprise. But when it comes to vetting people who come to the United States, whether as a visitor, a student or possible émigré, how we figure who they are has changed over the years. A visit to Ellis Island will show you how rudimentary the procedure once was. People staged in lines with whatever belongings they had trying to navigate into a country where many didn’t know a word of English or a single person to help them get started.

While there is still paperwork involved, today’s vetting process for individuals is primarily electronic. This is why President Trump’s recently issued national security presidential memorandum creating a National Vetting Center takes this process into the 21st century where it belongs.

Regardless of who we are or where we live, every one of us produces data about ourselves. From our schooling to our jobs, our family history and relationships, to our banking, shopping, driving records and residences, our everyday actions leave digital footprints of who we are and what we’ve been up to in life. When you bring all those data streams together, they form a unique story about the individual. That story shapes our credit rating, our ability to get a mortgage, a car loan, a license for a particular industry, let alone a job. It’s also a story we need to know about to allow entry of any person into our country, especially if they want to become an American citizen.

Data is the most powerful of ingredients in shaping any story, let alone decision. The more facts and details you have, the bigger aperture you have to see and understand the full person, character and decision placed in front of you. If you are short of details, you don’t have the full story. If there is something that stands out (good or bad) with the facts that are assembled, it allows you to pause and ask the questions to fill in the blanks. Which is why bringing together all of the data streams into a unified hub – the National Vetting Center – is prudent and sensible.

While lots of data is collected about us – by sources we like as well as dislike – we as individuals also possess the ability to bring our own data to the table to tell our story. Data brings details and insights to inform judgment. But it is never the final word on anything – especially in terms of granting a visa or citizenship to someone. People will still be the ultimate and final decision-makers on those judgment calls and a National Vetting Center can empower those decisions for the better.

Citizenship is a fortunate birthright to those born within our shores, but is truly a voluntary gift we as a people and government offer to those we determine can and should be woven into the American fabric. Should that be a selective process? Absolutely! We want the best of people with the heart, character, spirit and skills to match our national ethos and make it even better. Utilizing the tools, technologies and processes that adhere to legal, ethical and constitutional principles provides us the ability to make those informed decisions better than ever before.

Some will misinterpret the rise of data, algorithms, and other machine learning processes to vet prospective visa holders and citizens as letting the computers take over the decision-making. That is a complete misread of what a National Vetting Center can and should do. People, with minds and heartbeats, empowered by our government will be the decision-makers. We cannot forget that the most powerful ingredient in data-driven decision-making is ultimately us. Data, algorithms, machine learning – all from multiple sources – bring better-informed balance to what is a life-changing decision for that individual but also our country in determining who we invite to become part of our citizenry.

For years, the FBI, the Intelligence Community, and DHS, as well as law enforcement at all levels, have worked collaboratively to track prospective threats to our nation’s security. We’ve created localized hubs with Fusion Centers that bring these decision-makers together to respond when they are needed for any number of circumstances. Those actions have made a world of difference.

Doing the same type of coordination and collaboration with intelligence, immigration, law enforcement and other vested and empowered experts for immigration makes sense and is overdue. Bringing a bigger, more collaborative as well as more informed picture for those decision-makers can and will make all the difference for our future.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email HSTodayMag@GTSCoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

Rich Cooper is Editor-at-Large for HSToday. A former senior member of DHS’ Private Sector Office (PSO), Cooper has been a frequent writer and contributor to numerous media outlets. He is a Senior Fellow with GWU’s Cyber and Homeland Security Institute; a Senior Policy Principal for Homeland Security and Justice at SAS Federal and a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC. He has also served in senior positions at NASA, the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, and several other profit and not-for-profit enterprises.

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