Can Our Immigrant Vetting Process Really Detect Terrorists?


How does the US vet immigrants who want to enter the US? The president says we can offer visas to 10,000 Syrian refugees because we have a bullet-proof vetting process in place. But media and pols on both sides of the aisle aren’t so sure that he’s correct. And it’s not clear that any of these “experts,” including the president, has ever looked at the actual vetting process.

Surprisingly, I have personally undergone the immigration visa process, even though I was born and raised in the US. My experience may not be relevant anymore because the vetting organization has evolved and now depends more on technology. Nevertheless, some of what I experienced may remain in place.

The incident I remember occurred in Newark, NJ, with the organization that was then called INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service). I was in the middle of an outdoor line that was half as long as a football field at 7:00 AM, on a March day with an outdoor temperature around 20 degrees. Shivering while holding a handful of government forms received by mail, I was in line early, following the advice of knowledgeable people. They had warned me that the government limited its daily quota of cases, and refused new applicants after 10 AM every day. To ensure success, we needed to be in line by 7:30 AM or risk having to return at a later date.

Though my former wife and I were born Americans, we were in the process of adopting a two-year-old boy from Korea. Though we could have hired a family-law attorney, adoption experts told us we could reduce waiting time by six months if we walked the paperwork through INS ourselves. So we waited in line, with chattering teeth like all other immigrants.

Surveying people in our waiting line, I noted that most of our fellow applicants were Hispanic, African, Asian or Middle Eastern. There were very few Caucasian faces. Most people, including children, spoke quietly among themselves. Other than the soft buzz of those conversations, the crowd seemed eerily quiet.

About 30 minutes before the agency would open its doors, a female official emerged, wearing an extra-heavy, military style overcoat with an official INS badge. She was a large and imposing person. Though not impolite, she was stern and projected an unsmiling, no-nonsense bearing. She worked quickly down the line, apparently to ensure that all applicants carried paperwork.

When she had worked her way down to us, I interrupted her rapid process and asked a question. She immediately recognized that I was an American. Glancing at my paperwork, she offered a friendly smile, took us out of line, and escorted us into the indoor lobby at the very front of the line. Though I felt somewhat guilty on behalf of the people remaining outside in the Arctic air, I was nonetheless grateful for the special courtesy. Thinking further, I wondered whether the official instructions said, “Treat the tax-paying citizens kindly, so they’ll forget the standard dehumanizing vetting process.”

Once the inner doors opened, we faced a friendly but detailed, interrogation that lasted about 15 minutes. Once the interrogator dismissed us, we left quickly and quietly, happy to be ordinary Americans. At the time, we laughed at the perfunctory, bureaucratic process. How could it possibly single out a criminal or terrorist? Were governments of other countries equally slipshod?

Two years later, our family had relocated to the Boston area and awaited the arrival of a little girl, also from Korea. Chastened by our Newark INS experience, we had hired an attorney and waited through extra months for our new daughter to arrive.

We didn’t worry about INS anymore. But we soon faced a new bureaucratic experience at the French Consulate in Boston. We had planned a family vacation on the West Indies Island of Guadeloupe, a French territory.

Our US passports permitted us easy entry to the island. A few months earlier I had held my son’s hand and taken an oath that made him a naturalized American. He too now traveled on an American Passport. But our daughter wasn’t yet a citizen and had only a “green card” passport. Her passport was white, not blue, and was longer and narrower than ours. She, therefore, needed a full visa investigation to enter a territory of France.

The process at the French Consulate was much more civilized than the Newark incident. The consulate had far fewer travelers to manage and worked by appointment. However, the interview was far more detailed. Although my cute little daughter sat quietly on my lap, the unsmiling interviewer insisted on asking in-depth questioning. For example, she asked where the applicant had attended college, even though she was only three years old.

History suggests that the INS vetting process later became easier. It reportedly has few in-person interviews, relying on whatever inspectors can find in online databases. Having used material from government databases myself, I have noted numerous errors and omissions. I wouldn’t bet the life of one American that our current process will identify individual criminals or jihadists.

Before we commit our country to large numbers of immigrants, we need to have the entire vetting process inspected and certified by an outside group of technologists, including a few “white hat” hackers. “Congressional oversight” cannot perform this certification. The congressional oversight process for anything normally includes nefarious political machinations. We can’t depend on it. Vetting immigration is too important.

Personal Epilog: The little boy and girl referenced in the immigration vetting incidents grew up. The little boy served in the US Army, graduated from Cal-Berkeley, and works for a leading company in Silicon Valley. The little girl graduated from Cal-Santa Cruz, worked teaching English to Children in Korea, returned to the Bay Area, married and has a little boy of her own. Both kids have made their parents very proud.

My book “The Victory that Wasn’t” offers a fictional alternate history with a different kind of Military, and better outcomes for all Americans. It’s available on Amazon at



Author: Steve Vachss

Steve Vachss has enjoyed a career that permitted him to perform diverse roles. He has been a reporter, a broadcaster, an editor, a tech executive, a tech marketing consultant, and entrepreneur-founder of a company providing online business services. He’s also a US Army veteran. Through all of these experiences, his first love has always been writing. Prior to creating “The Victory that Wasn't,” he wrote literally hundreds of online articles, web pages, and “how-to” books, as well as guest editorials for print media. Born in Stamford, CT, he now lives in Dublin, CA, a San Francisco Bay Area suburb.

2 thoughts on “Can Our Immigrant Vetting Process Really Detect Terrorists?”

  1. Cool stories. I just don’t think they have much relevance as to whether refugee vetting works or not. The main thing is that unlike fiance, work or tourist visas, immigrating and refugee processing takes a very long time. How stupid a terrorist would you have to be to cue up for two years, as refugees must? No, they will choose another way of coming in, one with less scrutiny.


    1. You’re right. There are lots of better ways to get into the country. I wrote the post in this way primarily because we seem to have a huge disparity between what the government says, and the slipshod way they do things. This isn’t an issue of the current administration or either party. American voters want more honesty from their government. Whenever faced with a difficult issue, this president, his predecessor, and their spokespeople say “Don’t worry, we’ve got this.” Then we find out that they don’t. On this issue, we’re told that the process will take two years. Is that because they’ve designed a process and plugged all holes, or are they just guessing. I didn’t like the way the San Bernardino woman waltzed through the engagement visa process. Has that hole been plugged?


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