In “Wanted: A Smarter Immigration Policy,” Ted Alden of the Council on Foreign Relations offers an excellent analysis of what’s wrong with our immigration process – or at least, one of the things that is wrong with our broken immigration process. In a nutshell, his is an argument – a desperate plea really – for a return to risk-based security procedures that use intelligence and information to prioritize threats rather than the hopelessly ineffective but increasingly popular notion on Capitol Hill that we can prevent 100 percent of all threats we may face.

Do we really need, for instance, to do in-person interviews of everyone who seeks a visa, even if they have already been interviewed for visas in the past, and we already have their fingerprints on U.S. government databases? That only wastes scarce consular resources on low-risk travelers. Is it necessary to pull all male travelers from Muslim countries into the long humiliation of secondary screening at the airport, even those who are frequent visitors well-known to U.S. officials? It is time to reassert some common sense … Of all the initiatives undertaken in the name of homeland security after 9/11, the visa screening requirements for foreign scientists and engineers have probably done the most lasting damage to America’s economy — particularly in the cutting-edge technology fields that are vital to our economic leadership and national security.

Alden’s right. His particular focus is immigration, but the same logic – that we must prioritize threats based upon risk – applies across the board in the homeland security environment. Risk-based and layered security measures are the universally accepted best practices among security experts – unless you isolate a particular vulnerability and task a particular security agency with ensuring that nothing gets through. When that happens, you get situations of the sort Alden refers to, with the State Department and the FBI preferring to create massive backlogs and waste in the immigration screening process, in an effort to scan 100 percent of any particular group, rather than judiciously putting risk-based procedures into place. While individual lives are ruined (visa holders who return to their native countries for a vacation and find that they can’t quickly get back into the United States, losing their homes or jobs or private property), the agencies have covered themselves so no congressional inquiry can put the blame on them should something go wrong in the future. (And as everybody knows, there will be another terrorist attack at some point, and, as is Congress’s tendency, somebody – besides Congress – will need to be blamed.)

You see the same kind of brain-dampened approach to security in the supply chain environment. Well-known security experts like Congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts have led the effort to apply the 100 percent model to cargo security. (For the Markey fan(s?) out there lacking any sense of irony or experience in homeland security, the reference to his expertise in security is sarcasm; he’s a politician, not a security expert, though it seems many members of Congress seem to confuse the two.) So just as you have stunning backlogs in the immigration screening process, we will soon be facing similar backlogs in the international supply chain. In this case, the economic damage to which Alden refers above will not be indirect. It will not take prescient reporters or scholars to point out how shutting out key segments of our workforce will damage our economy. Once our global competitiveness is undermined, and international trade is routinely disrupted, the damage to our economy will be clear and immediate.

And for what? Scanning 100 percent of the cargo that enters our nation’s borders will not make us safer. Indeed, numerous credible third-party reports indicate that the 100 percent model could make us less safe. But, then, that doesn’t play as well on the campaign trail.

Chris Battle founded Security Debrief as a forum for the homeland security community to discuss pressing issues and current debates in national security, counter-terrorism and law enforcement. After a long fight against kidney cancer, Chris passed in August 2013. Read More