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OTHER VIEW
Other View: What works, and doesn't, to screen visitors

This appeared in Thursday’s Washington Post:

No one is certain how President-elect Donald Trump intends to stiffen restrictions on immigrants and visitors to the United States, or what he means by “extreme vetting,” though there is little doubt he will try to tighten screening for many applying from Muslim countries.

What is clear is that beefed-up federal laws, rules, systems, programs and technology have added substantial layers of scrutiny for virtually every foreigner who has entered the country in recent years.

Americans deserve to know that those entering the country have been screened carefully, but it will be difficult for Trump to fashion an even more muscular inspection and monitoring regimen without subjecting visitors and immigrants to outright religious profiling.

The advances in federal capabilities were highlighted last week when the Obama administration officially dismantled one post-Sept. 11 screening program, which seemed tough when it was enacted, because it had become obsolete. The program, known as the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, was in use for nine years before being suspended in 2011, largely because other, newer systems had proved more effective at tracking and monitoring foreign travelers before and after they entered the country.

While it was in use, NSEERS entailed registering some 180,000 teenage boys and men from 25 countries, most of them Muslim—subjecting them to fingerprinting, interrogations and, in some cases, periodic visits from federal agents. At least 13,000 of them were placed into deportation proceedings after overstaying their visas or otherwise failing to comply with rules.

The program applied for the most part to law-abiding visitors and residents, and as far as is known, never produced any terrorist prosecutions. In 2012, the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, noting it had done little to enhance public safety while draining government resources, recommended that it be permanently dismantled. Now it has been, meaning the Trump administration would have to jump through additional hoops to resurrect it, or something like it.

Doing so may be a waste of effort. Since NSEERS was established, and even more since its demise, other programs have leapfrogged it. Automated systems now collect and store biographic and biometric data including digitized fingerprints, iris scans and facial data for most foreigners entering the country, including students. Foreign nationals from or those who have visited high-risk countries such as Syria, Iraq, Libyaand Yemen are ineligible for participation in the U.S. visa waiver program, meaning they are subject to extra scrutiny when applying to come to the United States. Government databases are increasingly searchable and better at helping officials spot those who may pose threats to national security.

Those systems and programs, detailed by Homeland Security in explanation of NSEERS’s obsolescence, provide federal authorities with a range of tools to verify foreigners’ identities and monitor their movements. They apply broadly to visitors, travelers and immigrants. They also comport with constitutional standards and American values.

By contrast, a registry that singles out travelers from Muslim countries falls afoul of those standards—and may do little to enhance national security. While some prominent recent terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe were carried out by immigrants, the perpetrators of others, including the bloody assaults in Paris and Orlando, Florida, were by homegrown terrorists.


Columns
OTHER VIEW
Other View: Stop saying that 2016 was the 'worst year'

2016 was rough. So rough, in fact, that many media outlets (and tweets and Facebook posts) have crowned it the worst year ever. “2016: Worst. Year. Ever?” asks the New York Times. “Is this the worst year ever, or what?” decried a columnist at Slate. The Wall Street Journal even put together a guide on how to “bid good riddance to the worst year ever.”

I get it. But Americans almost always think that the year coming to a close is the worst. At the close of 2015, for example, Americans were asked “Do you think the world is getting better or worse, or neither getting better nor worse?” Only 6 percent of those surveyed thought the world was getting better. The same low numbers were seen in 2000, 2005 and 2010.

Why do Americans have such a negative view? Many misunderstand how the world is changing or ignore positive change. Over the past decade, for example, extreme poverty across the world has declined tremendously. In 1981, 44 percent of the world lived in extreme poverty. By 2015, extreme poverty dropped to 10 percent. Yet, when Oxfam asked Americans how global extreme poverty is changing, the majority thought that extreme poverty was increasing. Only 8 percent were actually aware that extreme poverty is indeed falling.

Other surveys find a similar lack of knowledge about positive developments. Crime rates have fallen for years in the United States, but the majority of people believe crime is on the rise.

This lack of knowledge about how our world is changing is not a new phenomenon. Surveys from long before 2016 — the era before the world turned “post-factual” — show the same levels of ignorance.

In a classic essay from 1965, Johan Galtung analyzed the structure of news. He found that the frequency with which outlets publish — daily, and now instantly — limits their ability to cover long-term positive trends. Imagine if newspapers did not come out every day but instead once every half-century. They likely wouldn’t report on half a century of gossip about celebrities and politicians. Instead, they’d focus on major global changes since the last edition. In a 50-year newspaper, the fact that global child mortality has fallen from 17 percent to 4 percent would make the front page.

The negative bias of event news is a problem on the supply side, but there are equally important problems on the demand side. In fact, to be on the lookout for signs of danger is hard-wired in our human psychology. Evolution has shaped our human nature to pay attention selectively and left us with a negativity bias because it is much more important for our survival to pay attention to threats than to positive changes. A missed opportunity is unfortunate, a missed danger can immediately threaten our survival.

What equipped us well for the life in small groups in our long past set us up with a mind that can lapse into a constant state of panic when exposed to the stream of 24-hours news. Even in a world of declining violence, on social media one can always find enough stories on violence, terror and possible threats.

An important reason that we are not aware of the slow developments that reshape our world is that we do not learn about them in our educational system. It should not be possible to make it through school without being taught how global living conditions have changed, but since this subject lies between mathematics (statistics) and history, it seems to fall through the cracks.


Columns
Readers Comment: Talkington: Reflections and predictions for Twin Falls

The rusty hinges have swung shut on 2016 and most events are already faded memories. But three experiences of the year past are worth remembering, and several predictions, or maybe hopes, are lining up the stars for 2017.

Unless a resident lived in a cave, who could ignore the noise emanating from City Council chambers mid-year? Organized refugee-haters and conspiracy experts grabbed the microphones, reprimanding Council for the College of Southern Idaho’s 30-year refugee resettlement program. The county prosecutor and city police remained professional as the investigation inched forward, and Council protected the protesters’ right to free speech for months. The process was messy but demonstrated local government’s commitment to offer everyone a public forum, allowing facts to be separated from rumor and outlandish claims.

Twin Falls’ exploding economy lit up local and even national economic news, as Clif Bar, Chobani and Glanbia hired thousands of new workers. The city’s population swelled to nearly 48,000, requiring three new schools and boosting sales of everything from autos to cribs and homes. The new jobs pay high wages and provide good benefits, a gratifying uplift from 2007’s Great Recession.

Concurrent with new businesses, Main Street began a major rebuilding, coupled with expansion of City Hall and the Police Complex. Urban Renewal funding allowed regeneration of Main, thanks to one of the few incentive programs the state allows. Twin Falls’ cautious rebuilding approach, coupled with available funding from frugal municipal operations, allowed the city to plan for the next 30-plus years, when Twin Falls’ population may top 70,000.

2017 will be the year of WATER, as the past century’s enormous success irrigating the desert with Snake River water has grown Twin Falls into a major economic center. But at what cost? The vital “quality of life” so cherished in our sleepy farm town, now feeling its oats, must be protected by recognizing environmental limits to the unexpected prosperity.

Limited availability of potable water will limit new industries moving to Twin Falls. The city should incorporate aggressive new zoning codes rewarding substitutes for grass and water-intensive home landscaping. New city parks may not have acres of grass and water-intensive trees, and hopefully, community awards will emerge for best water conservation practices. Yes, water rates will eventually rise to curb future demand.

Which brings me to a culminating hope for 2017. Twin Falls was the nation’s incubator for its largest, most successful private irrigation project and government Carey Act land grant. But there is no county-wide celebration of this historic flowering of the desert via official ceremony. With the new art project at North Five Points as a conversation-starter, isn’t it appropriate to initiate an expanded, singular celebration, highlighting the yearly opening of the first irrigation gate of Twin Falls Canal Co.? More than 280,000 acres of prime farmland today are fertile testimony to the vision of I.B. Perrine, Frank Buhl, Paul Bickel, John Hayes, Frank Murtaugh and other pioneers, all deserving our annual respect and noisy celebration.