Friday, November 07, 2014

Immigration, profiling and reflexive secrecy

There's an interesting OIA over on FYI about the Immigration Profiling Branch (IPB). This is a secretive branch of Immigration which reviews applications for "reputational risk" - whether they have had "an association with, membership of or involvement with any government, regime, group or agency that has advocated or committed war crimes, crimes against humanity and/or other gross human rights abuses". Which sounds sensible, until you see how they do it: screen every applicant from a list of countires. From a 2012 TVNZ report,

It is understood that the list of around 20 countries includes Kenya, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka and Iraq.

So, basically, if you're a resident of one of those countries, the New Zealand government considers (or rather, considered) you to be a war criminal by default. Its guilt by association on a massive scale. Which is why they want to keep the list secret: because naming those countries would damage our international relations (and probably the trade agreements we're pursuing with several of them).

That report also highlights the big problem with this approach: its slow and inefficient (or, as one clumsy redaction notes, "too broad"). And no wonder: IPB checks over 6,000 visa applications a year, but only refuses around 20 of them. So their success rate is about a third of one percent. And for this, we pay at least $4 million a year.

They're reviewing this, and rightly so. Its a bureaucratic mess in desperate need of reform. A more targeted approach is desperately needed.

Meanwhile, there's another thing that stands out about that response: the number of petty redactions. Things we are not allowed to know:
  • INZ's 2015 vision statement (because it would prejudice the maintenance of law and order);
  • That they will be processing "reputational risk" applications in the new IGMS computer system (ditto; but the context makes it obvious they're moving to electronic processing, and the size of the gap fits).
  • The name of the agency high-risk assessments are referred to (it is unclear whether this is an internal or external agency, but from Ombudsman's complaints we know IPB refers some applications to SIS for national security assessments).
  • That the current system of using a list of countries is "too broad" (they tried to redact this as "free and frank advice", but did a shit job of it. Plus its obvious).
Looking through this, I get the strong impression that Immigration is overly secretive, uses any reason to hide information, and does not understand the meaning of "real and substantial risk". What's the risk to the law or national security of telling us that they don't intend to let in "bad people", the name of a computer system or that they get actual spies with access to actual classified information to do high-priority risk assessments? There isn't any. Instead its just reflexive secrecy.