Pir Khan, a 43-year-old taxi driver from Watertown, Massachusetts was arrested May 13, along with his cousin, Aftab Khan, 27, on immigration charges as part of the investigation into the May 1 car bombing attempt in Times Square. Pir Khan allegedly gave money to the failed Times Square bomber, though Mr. Khan and his cousin deny any connection with the would-be bomber.
Pir Khan came to the U.S. from Pakistan and applied for asylum in 1994. Apparently, his case was not denied until 2007 (13 years later!), by which time he had married a U.S. citizen. Apparently, he is now pursuing alternative relief based on the marriage (depending on the posture of the case, this may or may not be possible).
Mr. Khan’s case raises some important points. First, why did the asylum case take so long? In the 1990s there were large numbers of asylum and NACARA claims from Central America (NACARA was an act that allowed certain Central Americans and others to remain in the U.S.; such cases are processed by the Asylum Office). That, combined with a less efficient adjudication system led to long delays, and many cases lingered for a decade or more. Today, asylum cases are resolved more quickly, though between the Asylum Office, the Immigration Court, and the appeals process, a case could easily take three or four years.
This raises a second, more important point. Could a potential terrorist use the asylum system to gain entry into the U.S. to commit a crime? The answer is a qualified yes. Qualified, because asylum is probably one of the worst ways for a criminal to gain access to our country. Asylum applicants are repeatedly fingerprinted, photographed, and interviewed. They probably have more contact with “the system” than any other category of alien save those that have committed a crime. None of the September 11th terrorists were asylum seekers–they all entered the country through other means. This does not mean that a terrorist could not make a false claim for asylum, or that he could not delay his removal by appealing a denied asylum claim. However, by subjecting himself to the biometric background check, any potential terrorist could have his cover blown and his plot foiled. This does not mean that the system is perfect, but it may be less vulnerable to such breaches than other applications. (In an aside, a UK report from some years ago found that one in four terrorist suspects was an asylum seeker. The term “asylum seeker” has a broader meaning in the UK than here, but nevertheless, the report reminds us to be vigilant for this type of threat.)
A related problem is the high rate of denied asylum seekers (and other aliens denied relief) who fail to depart the United States. That was Mr. Khan–he was denied asylum, but he remained in the U.S. anyway. One solution is to simply detain all asylum seekers (and all illegal immigrants) until their cases are decided. Not only would this be inhumane, it would be prohibitively expensive. Moreover, it is unclear whether the increased security gained from such an approach would be cost effective. Couldn’t the money be better spent on more targeted methods of protecting us? Another solution might be to detain aliens at the end of their cases if relief is denied. This would have many of the same problems as detaining all illegal immigrants, but at a slightly lower cost. To me, the better approach involves alternatives to detention–bond, ankle bracelets, monitoring and reporting. Such an approach is more humane (though it can still be coercive and scary for the alien) and less expensive. In addition, Asylum Officers and DHS attorneys should be trained to ask questions that could help reveal whether a person has any terrorist connection (aside from the very lame and very useless–but also very common–”Have you ever supported any terrorist organization?”). Such (admittedly controversial) techniques are employed by some airlines like El Al.
As usual, we walk a fine line between living up to our ideals and fulfilling our humanitarian obligations on the one hand, and defending against terrorism on the other. Those who care about the asylum system should be concerned with this dilemma: If one terrorist gains entry via the asylum process, all future asylum seekers will pay the price.