June 16, 2004 12:00 PM PDT

Perspective: CLEARly muddying the fight against terror

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CLEARly muddying the fight against terror
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.

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.
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 crime. 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.

Biography
Bruce Schneier is CTO of Counterpane Internet Security, Inc. He is one of the world's foremost security experts. His latest book is "Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World."

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An unfunded burden?
I guess I'm just simple minded. I thought our law enforcements agents and officers were paid to enforce the laws. The slant of this article would lead one to believe that they're apparently only paid to enforce laws for which they obtain federal funding.

If it's against the law to do this-and-such, and an officer/agent doesn't enforce the law, that's deriliction of duty at best, obstruction of justice at worst.

- Joe Levi
www.JoeLevi.com
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data isn't free
The cost is not just the enforcement; it's the infrastructure to allow two-way sharing of data with the federal government. Local law enforcement bodies are badly underfunded in almost all cases, and their IT investments are no exception.

This cost will, in many cases, be paid by reducing officers on the beat, before you talk about giving them more work to do.

I am largely in agreement with Bruce's point of view, although from a pragmatic viewpoint, I really believe that universal availability of this type of information is only a matter of time. We in corporate IT departments are working hard to make it so, because it improves efficiencies.

My concern, of course, is that if this information is globally and instantly available to governments, who may misuse it but are at least theoretically accountable to the people, without proper access controls it will also be available to others who WILL misuse it and are not accountable because we can't trace them.

So even if all of Bruce's concerns are futile, fatalism is still not wise; there's still a battle to be fought, and it's urgent that we begin fighting it.
Posted by brianmthomas (8 comments )
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