Some years ago I had a medical procedure that required visiting a few different doctors, and, dysgraphic as I am, I was intensely annoyed by the fact that at every doctor’s office, I was given pencil and paper to fill out what was essentially the same questionnaire, over and over. There being nothing much more pressing at issue than whether I am allergic to penicillin or had been feeling dizzy lately, this seemed to me like the sort of thing that ought to be done electronically and shared among practices. I pointed out to one not-at-all-interested physician that when I received bills, they were produced electronically rather than with pencil and paper.
“What’s your point?” he asked.
You can tell a great deal from data itself, but also from how data is gathered — and, when it comes to government, how data isn’t gathered. The IRS may inquire into the tiniest details of your domestic arrangements — and the content of your prayers, if it’s feeling froggy — and the mayor of Houston may subpoena the contents of your church’s Sunday-morning sermon. But there are all sorts of things that government does not know, because it does not ask, because it does not want to know. What proportion of sexual-assault allegations or hate-crime reports turn out to be false and made with malice aforethought? Nobody really knows, because nobody is asking. How common is felonious misconduct among police? Is there a relationship between IQ and welfare dependency, and, if so, what? Don’t ask; government sure as hell won’t tell. People get paid to collect your back taxes, but nobody gets paid to collate that kind of bad news.
In congressional testimony in December, Alan Bersin, assistant secretary for international affairs at the Department of Homeland Security — the most cruelly misnamed bureaucratic concatenation since the Government Accountability Office — was asked by Representative Mark Meadows (R., N.C.) to answer the simple question of how many aliens illegally overstay their visas every year. Bersin’s answer as quoted in the Times was: “We don’t know.”
Why don’t we know? There doesn’t seem to have been an estimate of the problem since 1997, which was a few years before persistent visa overstayers Satam al-Suqami and Nawaf al-Hazmi helped crash airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
I recently took a brief trip abroad, and the process for exiting and reentering the United States as a citizen looks like this: Make an airline reservation, which electronically alerts federal authorities that you plan to leave the country. Show up at the airport, show your passport, have it checked against the entry requirements of the destination country. Present the passport again on entering the airplane. Fill out forms on the airplane, present the forms and passport for inspection in the destination country. On the way home, return to the airport, certify that all legal obligations have been met (exit tax, etc.), present passport and documents to immigration authorities, board plane, fill out customs declaration, land, scan passport into kiosk, have photo taken, answer questionnaire, present photo and questionnaire to immigration authorities, answer such questions as are presented, reclaim baggage, present passport and paperwork to final exit control station. Which is to say, as a citizen coming and going, I present the federal government with a dozen or so opportunities to determine my whereabouts and the legality of same. But we cannot keep track of foreign nationals who are obliged to apply for visas?
From two of the 9/11 hijackers to one of the San Bernardino shooters, our visa program is a real source of national vulnerability to terrorism. And the fact is that the federal government is doing such a catastrophically poor job policing visa overstays that its minions are terrified even to keep track of how catastrophically poorly they are performing.We are perfectly capable of keeping track of these things: Miss the January payment on your Macy’s card by two days, and financial firms around the world will know instantly, but flout federal immigration law, and the mighty, mighty Department of Homeland Security can’t find its own ass with both hands, much less locate yours. Congress should give DHS a deadline — say, June 1 of this year — to at least get a handle on how bad a job it is doing. And if it fails to satisfy congressional demands, then DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson should be expected to resign or face impeachment. Impeachment is not something to be taken lightly, but we cannot afford to have intelligence operations that are this unintelligent. Institutional ignorance on this level does not happen by accident or through negligence — it happens only by design.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.