Immigration and Terrorism
Testimony Prepared for the Senate Judiciary Committee
Subcommittee on Technology, Terrorism and Government Information
October 12, 2001
by Steven A. Camarota
Director of Research
Center for Immigration Studies
1522 K St. NW, Suite 820
Washington, DC 20005
fax, (202) 466-8076
The nation's responses to the horrific attacks of September 11 will clearly
have to be in many different areas: including military retaliation, freezing
terrorist assets, diplomatic initiatives, improvements in intelligence gathering,
and expanded security measures at airports, utilities and other public places.
But one aspect of increased preparedness must not be overlooked changes
in immigration and border control. Though alll the details have been released,
it seems clear that the19 terrorists of September 11 were all foreign citizens
and entered the United States legally, as tourists, business travelers, or students.
This was also true of the perpetrators of previous terrorist acts, including
Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, Mir
Amal Kasi, murderer of two CIA employees the same year, and Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman,
convicted in 1995 of plotting a terror campaign in New York.
While it is absolutely essential that we not scapegoat immigrants, especially
Muslim immigrants, we also must not overlook the most obvious fact: the current
terrorist threat to the United States comes almost exclusively from individuals
who arrive from abroad. Thus, our immigration policy, including temporary and
permanent visas issuance, border control, and efforts to deal with illegal immigration
are all critical to reducing the chance of an attack in the future.
Much has been written about how we are involved in a new kind of war. In this
new kind of conflict, America's borders are a major theater of operations. This
is because the primary weapons of our enemies are not aircraft carriers or even
commercial airliners, but rather the terrorists themselves -- thus keeping the
terrorists out or apprehending them after they get in is going to be an indispensible
element of victory. The simple fact is that if the terrorists can't enter the
country, they won't be able to commit an attack on American soil.
The president implicitly acknowledged this fact in announcing the creation of
a new Office of Homeland Security, which "will lead, oversee and coordinate
a comprehensive national strategy to safeguard our country against terrorism."
In a very real sense, we already have a homeland security agency -- it's called
the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). The precursor of the INS was
established in the Treasury Department in 1891 and moved to the new Department
of Commerce and Labor in 1903. But in 1940, as war neared, it was moved to the
Department of Justice. As Cornell professor Vernon Briggs has written, the move
was done because "It was feared that immigration would become a way of
entry for enemy spies and saboteurs," and President Roosevelt himself said
the change was made solely for reasons of "national safety." A history
of the INS describes its war-related duties: "Recording and fingerprinting
every alien in the United States through the Alien Registration Program; ...
constant guard of national borders by the Border Patrol; record checks related
to security clearances for immigrant defense workers..."
A Fundamental Change in Attitude About Our Nation's Borders
Most Americans understand that our border is a critical tool for protecting
America's national interests. (By border I mean any place where foreign citizens
enter the United States.) A Zogby International poll taken in the wake of the
attacks found that the overwhelming majority of Americans, across all races,
regions, incomes, and political beliefs blamed lax border control and screening
of immigrants for contributing to the attacks and believed that improved immigration
enforcement would reduce the likelihood of future atrocities. There can be little
doubt that greatly stepped-up efforts to control the border would be met with
overwhelming support by the American people. Unfortunately a small but politically
very influential portion of America's leadership has come to see our borders
as simply an obstacle to be overcome by travelers and businesses. This attitude
clearly has to change.
If we take the physical safety of our people seriously, our mechanisms for controlling
and monitoring the movement of foreign citizens across our borders must be improved
in three places: overseas, at the border itself, and inside the country.
Visa Processing Overseas
Entry to the United States is not a right, but a privilege, granted exclusively
at our discretion. For the most part that discretion is exercised by members
of the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs, often referred to as the
Consular Corps. Among their other duties, these men and women make the all-important
decisions about who gets a visa to enter the United States, making them the
forward guard of homeland defense America's other Border Patrol.
Recent improvements. Unfortunately, the Consular Corps has neither the manpower,
nor the tools to fulfill this heavy responsibility properly. Most importantly,
management of the consular corps offers distorted incentives to officers in
the field. Mary Ryan, who became Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs
in 1993 and is in charge of visa issuance and the other consular responsibilities,
has overseen genuine technical improvements in the issuing of visas. These changes
have included making visas machine-readable and more difficult to forge than
in the past. Also, the "watch list" of people who should not be granted
visas is now computerized, rather than the old microfiche-based system in place
until just a few years ago.
The American people and not visa applicants is the customer. But along with
improvements, the Consular Corps has also adopted a culture of service rather
than skepticism, in which visa officers are expected to consider their customers
to be the visa applicants. Thus, satisfying the customer -- the foreign visa
applicant -- has become one of the most important goals, leading to pressure
to speed processing and approve marginal applications. As one former Foreign
Service officer has written, "State Department procedures call for supervisory
review of refusals, but not issuances -- thus, relatively inexperienced junior
officers are trusted to issue visas but are second-guessed on refusals."
Visa officers are judged by the number of interviews conducted each day and
politeness to applicants rather than the thoroughness of screening applicants.
This is especially ironic given that the law requires precisely the opposite
approach, placing the burden of proof on the applicant for a temporary non-immigrant
A Conflict of interest between visa processing and diplomacy. Responsibility
for issuing visas fell to the State Department because it was the only agency
with offices overseas, where the demand was. But it is difficult to imagine
two less complementary functions than diplomacy and immigration enforcement.
The diplomat's goal of promoting cooperation and compromise is sometimes in
conflict with the gatekeeper's goal of exposing fraud and ensuring compliance
with the law. This systemic mismatch is likely to persist regardless of management
changes and may only be remedied by transferring all visa-issuing responsibilities
overseas to the INS or perhaps a new "Visa Corps."
A new separate "Visa Corps?" A new free-standing visa issuing agency
would have offices in consulates around the world, and would issue visas and
be answerable not to the local ambassador, but to the head of this new agency
or perhaps even the head of homeland security. If INS was to take control of
visa processing overseas, then the Visa Corps could be answerable to INS headquarters
in Washington. Moreover, if visa processing was the career choice of all visa
officers, those who would work in this area would be able to hone their skills
at spotting fraud or security risks. Visa officers need to be highly trained
professionals, specializing in their function, respected by their agency, and
insulated, to the extent possible, from political pressure. Such a system would
be an invaluable asset in making our nations safer from terrorism.
More resources are needed. Administrative changes, of course, won't matter much
if there aren't enough people to handle the work. The Bureau of Consular Affairs
has only 900 Foreign Service officers overseas, assisted by 2,500 foreign nationals,
and the demand for visas to visit the United States is enormous. Last year,
the State Department issued 7.1 million non-immigrant visas, up 15 percent from
1995, and more than triple the number issued 30 years ago, when the majority
of visas were issued to citizens of countries (mainly Western Europe and Japan)
which now no longer need visas when arriving on short visits.
Because of this ballooning workload, all junior Foreign Service officers are
required to adjudicate visa applications for a year or more, turning this profound
responsibility into a dreaded rite of passage for new Foreign Service officers.
Consular officers often have no more than a few minutes to assess each application.
What's more, visa responsibilities are held in such low regard institutionally
that consular ranks are often filled by unemployed spouses of local Foreign
Watch lists and biometric identification. But even with adjusted incentives
and adequate personnel, successfully handling such an enormous workload, and
keeping out those who would do us harm requires the right tools. The primary
tool in flagging terrorists is the "watch list," (also called the
"look out" system) a compilation of several million people who are
not to be issued visas. Obviously, effective intelligence is required for the
watch list to be valuable, but based as it currently is solely on names, rather
than also using a biometric identifier like a fingerprint, means that many possible
terrorist might slip through. While fingerprints will never be available on
most of those on the list, many persons on the watch list have been arrested
or detained by authorities in other countries or on previous stays in the United
States. To the extent possible we need to obtain these fingerprints and make
them part of the watch list database.
To be most effective, the visa process should start with each applicant's fingerprints
being digitally scanned into an integrated system which can be accessed by everyone
involved in the immigration process overseas, at the border, and within
the country. These fingerprints should be checked against the watch list. Ideally,
visitors' fingerprints should be scanned again when they enter the country,
and again when they leave. This wouldn't be cheap to establish, but the technology
is already widely used; in fact, the Border Patrol has been scanning fingerprints
of illegal aliens apprehended on the Mexican border for several years now. Gathering
applicant fingerprints and scanning them again when a person enters and leaves
the country would serve many purposes: First, it would be a way of definitively
determining that someone has entered the country and also that they have left
when they are supposed to. Second: it would be a way of excluding those on the
watch list for whom we have fingerprints. Third, it would establish identification,
ensuring that the person issued the visa is the same person entering the country.
Fourth, it would prevent individuals from going from consulate to consulate
using different identities if they have been denied a visa at one location.
Fifth, providing the U.S. government with fingerprints would by itself be a
significant deterrent to would-be terrorists who certainly would be reluctant
to give the government this information.
To the extent possible we also need to put photos of suspected terrorists on
the watch list as well. If we took a digital photo of every visa applicant and
ran it through facial recognition software, (which is already pretty well developed),
along with fingerprints for each applicant, we might also be able to identify
suspected torrorists even if they apply for a visa using a false identity. While
something like a facial recognition system would take time to implement, there
are other simpler things we can do right away to make the list much more effective.
the State Department's watch list could include access to the FBI criminal database,
at present it does not. With the right management, staffing, and technology,
the process of screening those we want to keep out would be much more effective.
A number of procedural and legal changes would also help.
Exclude all enemies of America. Visa officers should be instructed to deny visas
to people who are clearly enemies of America, but who have not actually committed
a terrorist act.
Currently, the law makes it extremely difficult to turn down an applicant because
of his "beliefs, statements, or associations, if such beliefs, statements,
or associations would be lawful within the United States." As the law now
reads, keeping out a terrorist sympathizer, who publically organize demonstrations
calling for the destruction of America or actively distributes Osama bin Laden
videos, but who as far as we know, hasn't yet raised money for terrorist groups
or planned out an assault, requires the Secretary of State to personally make
the decision and then report each individual instance to congress. As a result,
few if any individuals are excluded based on their anti-American beliefs.
We will not, of course, know the political beliefs of most applicants. However,
just has we learn about the possible terrorist links of some individuals from
friendly governments as well as our own intelligence, we will also learn of
those who express strong anti-American views. These individuals can then be
added to the watch list. Some may object to the idea of excluding people based
only on their political beliefs, but it is important to remember that getting
a visa to come to America is a privilege, not a right, and it is only common
sense to exclude those who advocate violence towards our country. This is especially
true during a time of war when the only way for the terrorist to attack us on
our own soil is if we allow them into the country. Moreover, being denied a
visa does not prevent such a person from continuing to express their views.
He or she is free to do so in their own country. One can only imagine the American
public's reaction if it is revealed in the aftermath of another attack that
the anti-American views of the terrorist were know and he was still issued a
visa to come to America. It is simply irresponsible not exclude all such individuals.
More through screening for applicants from some countries. Additionally, citizens
of those countries whose governments do not sponsor terrorism, but whose citizens
have come here as terrorists (Egypt or Saudi Arabia, for example) should have
to pass a much higher bar for visa issuance, including a thorough security clearance
(working with local authorities) and confirmation with universities of each
student visa application. This should also apply to visa applicants born in
these countries but now holding other citizenship. In addition, no visas should
be issued to citizens of Middle Eastern countries at U.S. consulates outside
their home countries; this is because an American visa officer in Germany is
less likely to be able to identify a problem applicant from Saudi Arabia than
his counterpart based in Saudi Arabia.
There is nothing unprecedented about such country-specific temporary visa policies;
for instance, a person from Poland currently needs a visa to vacation in the
United States, whereas a persons from Japan does not, because Poles are more
likely to overstay their visas than Japanese. It is true that these provisions
apply only to temporary visas, but a much higher bar for both temporary and
permanent visas for nationals from some countries is simply a logical extension
of this kind of policy.
Excluding persons based on religion or nationality is not justified. The fact
that the terrorist attacks of September 11 were perpetrated by foreign-born
Muslims may tempt some to support the elimination of visas for all Muslims or
Middle Easterners in an effort to reduce or eliminate the foreign terrorist
threat in the future. While more vigorous backgrounder checks for persons born
in some countries makes sense and may result in a higher percentage being denied
visas, efforts to exclude entire countries or religions should be resisted.
Changes of this kind would harken back to immigration law prior to 1965 when
the number of permanent residency visas were severely restricted for southern
and eastern European countries, while immigration from Western Europe was much
less restricted. Using religion or nationality as a basis for issuing visas
is not only inconsistent with American values but may also anger Middle Eastern
countries whose cooperation we very much need in the war on terrorism.
There may well be compelling national security or other reasons to reduce both
temporary and permanent immigration, but changes should apply equally to all
countries not just those in some parts of the world. Later in my testimony I
explore some of the reasons why we may wish to reduce the overall level of immigration.
Selective enforcement of immigration law also must not be undertaken. For example,
we should definitely not pursue visa overstayers who are from the Middle East
more vigorously than those from other counties. Instead, we need to develop
enforcement strategies that apply forcefully to all overstayers. By definition
all those who have overstayed their visas or entered the country without permission
have broken the law and should be made to leave the country. Signaling out one
group for enforcement is not only unfair and un-American but it is probably
unconstitutional as well.
Controlling the Border
The next layer of protection is the border itself, which has two elements
"ports of entry," which are the points where people traveling by land,
sea, or air entering the United States, and the stretches between those entry
points. The first are staffed by immigration and Customs inspectors, the second
monitored by the Border Patrol and the Coast Guard.
The need for improvements at the ports of entry is dire. Last year there were
more than 500 million entries at these legal entry points, mostly at land border-crossings
and many of them commuters. Close to half of these entries are returning U.S.
citizens, and others are border commuters, but the number of foreign visitors
is still enormous. In 1999, there were more than 31 million "non-immigrant"
admissions (not counting Canadians and Mexicans on short visits), almost triple
the number of 20 years ago. These were mostly tourists (24 million) and business
travelers (4.5 million), but also included nearly a million students and exchange
visitors and about the same number of "temporary" workers and corporate
transferees. In fact, the INS states of the above numbers, "Inspections
data for land passenger traffic are estimates that may contain unspecified margins
of error." Put simply, the INS does not know how many people are entering
A greater investment in manpower and infrastructure at the border. The land
crossing points are often not fully staffed, and not every car or truck is examined.
Part of the solution here is straightforward many more inspectors and
more inspection lanes at crossing points. Immigrant smuggling through ports
of entry, using fake papers or hiding in secret compartments, was almost completely
shut down when security along the borders was tightened in the wake of the September
11 attacks. The problem, of course, was that inadequate staffing and infrastructure
caused long waits but thorough checking plus additional inspectors can
equal better security without excessive delay.
This attitude toward border security should have changed in December 1999, when
one Ahmed Ressam was stopped by a border inspector at a crossing in Washington
state. It turns out that he had trained at bin Laden's terrorist camps in Afghanistan
and had a car full of explosives with which he was going to disrupt millennium
celebrations in Seattle and blow up Los Angeles International Airport. He had
entered Canada with a forged passport, requested political asylum, and was released
into the population, pending a court date. This is standard practice in Canada,
and underlines the importance of better border control.
Entry Exit System. There is also a long-standing and very real problem that
the INS also does not know whether foreign visitors admitted on visas actually
leave the country when their visas expire. There is no mechanism for tracking
land departures, and the system for tracking arrivals and departures by air,
which is how most visa-holders travel, is completely broken. The current system
requires foreign visitors to fill out a two-part form with their name, passport
number, destination. The visitor then hands one part to the U.S. immigration
inspector upon arrival. The other half is collected by the flight attendants
on the outbound flight and later transferred to the INS. The opportunities for
failure are enormous: airlines often don't collect the forms or forward them
to INS; visitors may enter by air but leave by land, leaving no trace of their
departure; the information on the paper forms may be improperly keyed in. This
system is so dysfunctional that the INS's own statistics division considers
any departure data after 1992 to be worthless.
Time-limited visas are pointless with out entry-exit system. Temporary visa
are only meaningful if we know whether the deadline has been honored. Because
we do not collect accurate exit information, we have no way of knowing if someone
has left the country. The result of this situation is a list of millions of
people who appear not to have left, most of whom really have. Because of this,
it is impossible to pick out the actual "visa over-stayers." As a
result, if the FBI asks the INS if a particular individual is in the country,
in may cases the INS must respond they simply do not know. In total, there are
an estimated 3 to 4 million people living in the United States who entered the
country legally, but never left, accounting for perhaps 40 percent of the total
The bipartisan U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, headed by the late Barbara
Jordan, in 1994 called for computerized tracking of all arrivals and departures
by land, sea, and air (including Canadians who don't need visas). Congress in
the 1996 immigration law directed the INS to develop such a system, but partly
at the behest of the business community in border-states, this provision was
postponed and in 2000 effectively shelved. The concern was that the system would
create interminable traffic jams as people lined up to enter and leave the United
States but a technologically modern system with an adequate number of
scanners should not significantly impede traffic at all. This, of course, would
mean greatly increased investment in equipment, personnel, and infrastructure
at the border as well. For example, where there are now 10 lanes of traffic
and inspection stations there may need to be 20 and where there are now 20 lanes
there may need to be 40. The only other alternative is to expose the country
to unacceptable risk.
Border Patrol is grossly inadequate. The situation isn't much better between
the ports of entry. Better screening of visa applicants and a tightly monitored
entry-exit system would be almost meaningless if it continues to be easy to
cross the border illegally. A serious attempt has been made in recent years
to increase the Border Patrol, although the total number of agents there is
still only about 9,000 overall, and on any given shift, there are only about
1,700 agents on duty at the southern border or an average of less than one agent
per mile. Moreover, there are only a few hundred agents patrolling the entire
Canadian border, and this is where terrorists are more likely to enter for a
variety of reasons, including the fact that immigrant communities in many Canadian
cities provide excellent cover, whereas someone from the Middle East could not
blend in so easily on the Mexican border.
A February 2000 report by the Justice Department's Inspector General sheds light
on how inadequately the northern border is patrolled. It found that at one 300-mile
sector of the border, agents identified 65 smuggling corridors but had only
36 sensors to monitor them. Such sensors, designed to detect motion or heat
or metallic objects, can be a valuable force-multiplier, but they will not be
useful unless there are enough of them to cover the border and enough agents
to respond when they are triggered. What's more, the IG report found that in
some short-handed sectors, there are times when there are no agents on duty
at all, a fact which quickly becomes apparent to various kinds of smugglers
and terrorists trying to cross the border.
The answer, of course, is increased personnel and a serious commitment to border
security. The Border Patrol has actually increased significantly since the mid-90s,
and has been doing a much better job of patrolling the southern border, dramatically
reducing illegal crossings near major cities and forcing smugglers to resort
to more remote areas, where they are more easily detected. These successes need
to be expanded upon while improving coverage of the northern border as well.
The Border Patrol could be increased from its current total of less than 10,000
up to 30,000 or 40,000 people without even nearing the point of diminishing
returns. This cannot be accomplished overnight, however, because it takes time
to build a trained and experienced force. Nonetheless, failure to properly police
the border between crossing points would be a huge invitation to terrorists
rendering all our other efforts at immigration enforcement irrelevant.
Increased Border Patrol is not militarization. Some may object to such measures,
and even to the increased border enforcement that has already taken place, as
"militarization" of the border. Such objections highlight the important
difference between the respective roles of soldiers and law enforcement; soldiers
are supposed to find and kill the enemy, while law enforcement agencies, like
the Border Patrol (and the Coast Guard), deter or apprehend wrongdoers. Assigning
troops to patrol our borders would indeed be a militarization of border enforcement,
and should be a very last resort (although using military support capabilities,
such as radar and road-building, to assist the Border Patrol is appropriate,
even necessary). But the way to avoid militarization is to build up the capacity
of the Border Patrol such that there would be no reason to call for troops on
The final layer of effective immigration control lies inside the country. As
already discussed, the federal government has no idea whether foreign visitors
have left when their visas expire. In addition, it has no idea where foreign
citizens live when their visas are still valid.
Tracking tourists and business travelers would be difficult even in the
current environment, it is unrealistic to require all foreign visitors to submit
their passports every time they check into a hotel and to expect hotels to report
that information. Currently, foreign travelers are required to write down their
destination upon entering the United States, but no effort is made to verify
the information; in fact, two of the September 11 jihadists listed "Marriott
Hotel, New York" as their destination. Resources could be more fruitfully
spent elsewhere. Of course, this is why more stringent controls on issuing visas
and real-time tracking of visa overstays are so important. But even with better
screening and tracking of overstays, if we continue to almost entirely neglect
enforcement of immigration law and allow millions of illegals to live in the
country, we will also continue to expose our country to very significant terrorists
threats. Fortunately there are a number of steps that can be taken to enforce
the law within the United States.
A tracking system for temporary visa holders. Tracking of foreign citizens residing
here for extended periods of time, affiliated with some American institution
responsible for their whereabouts, is both possible and desirable. It's desirable
because these long-term visitors (here from one to six years, or more) reside
here for long periods of time in a legal status, whereas short-term visitors
are less likely to have the time to hatch sophisticated plots before their visas
expire. In our open society, there has been only the most perfunctory oversight
of such long-term foreign students and workers so perfunctory, in fact,
that at least one of the September 11 terrorists entered the country on a student
visa but never showed up for class, without triggering any concern anywhere.
And although short-term tourists and business travelers, who are not attached
to any American institution, make up the majority of non-immigrants, the number
of long-term visa holders requiring oversight is still quite large. In 1999,
there were more than 923,000 foreign students and exchange visitors admitted
(including their spouses and young children), up 45 percent just from 1995.
The number of long-term foreign workers, plus family members, was about 1 million
in 1999, up 123 percent from 1995.
The 1996 immigration law mandated the INS to develop a computerized tracking
system for foreign students, to replace the current manual, paper-based system.
Unfortunately, the system has not gone beyond the pilot stage, and is only tested
in a couple of dozen southeastern schools, largely because of opposition from
universities and colleges. Institutions have opposed it, fearing the extra administrative
burden associated with such a system. Many also do not like the idea of treating
foreign students differently from their American counterparts. But given the
very real threats we face, tracking all visitors makes perfect sense.
The problem with the whole foreign students program is not simply one of visa
fraud or overstays; the nature of their studies is also a matter of concern.
In 1997, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy published a report highlighting
the weaknesses in our efforts to prevent students from terrorism-sponsoring
states from studying subjects that would benefit those countries' weapons programs.
Not only are very few students denied visas based on their desired fields of
study, but the lack of monitoring allows them to declare their intention to
study some innocuous social science, for instance, but then change majors to
nuclear engineering or the like, without anyone in the government being alerted
to this fact.
Tracking system for foreign students must be expanded to non-students. The experimental
INS system to track foreign students will almost certainly be accelerated in
the wake of September 11. But this will not address the fact that there are
an additional million temporary workers and trainees and intra-company transferees
who are not included in the system, and they are not effectively tracked by
any other means. Expanding the new tracking system to cover both foreign students
and foreign workers is needed to ensure the system is as comprehensive as possible.
In a nutshell, to effectively control our border the government needs an integrated
system that uses a biometric identifier like a fingerprint to create a single
file for each foreign citizen planning to visit the United States, and track
that person during the entire process at each step in the visa process,
each land border crossing, each entry and exit at airports, each change in status
at school or work, each arrest, each application for government benefits. This
file should be accessible to law enforcement and linked to the databases of
the FBI, IRS, Social Security, Selective Service, and other federal agencies.
There is no other way to keep admitting large numbers of foreign citizens and
maintain security as well.
It is important to emphasize that at a time when there is much discussion of
curbs on the civil liberties of Americans, better tracking of foreign citizens
not only addresses the core of the security problem but should also be especially
appealing because it does not effect the civil liberties of any Americans, only
guests from overseas whose presence here is a privilege.
Ending Section 245(i) Another change regarding immigrants that would enhance
homeland security would be the permanent elimination of a provision in the immigration
law known as section "245(i)." This allows illegal aliens on the waiting
list for a green card (because, for instance, they have married an American)
to undergo visa processing and receive their permanent residence visa without
having to leave the country and go to the U.S. consulate in their home country.
This provision is problematic not only because it rewards immigration line-jumpers
but because it compromises homeland security. The INS official who processes
the visa in the United States is much less likely to detect a possible terrorist
or criminal among applicants than is a consular officer in the alien's home
country, who is familiar with the local language and has contacts with local
law enforcement. Not only does 245(i) undermine efforts to screen out terrorists,
but it also negates our ability to keep out those judged to be dangerous
because they're already here, whereas an alien who went home only to be found
ineligible would, in effect, have deported himself.
Enforcing the ban on hiring illegals aliens. The centerpiece of any interior
enforcement strategy has to be enforcing the prohibition on hiring illegal aliens.
While worksite enoforcement, as it is commonly called, may not seem to be vital
to national security at first glance, it is in fact critically important to
reducing the terrorist threat. In 1986, Congress prohibited the employment of
illegal aliens, although enforcement was at first spotty and has been virtually
non-existent for the past couple of years. Although it is obviously directed
at turning off the magnet of jobs attracting conventional illegal aliens, such
worksite enforcement is also important for anti-terrorism efforts. Gaining control
of the border between crossing points is probably only possible if we dramatically
reduce the number of illegal job seekers who routinely cross into the United
States. If prospective illegal aliens knew there was no job waiting for them
in the United States, many fewer would try and cross illegally.
In addition, it would be much harder for terrorists who overstay their visas
to blend into normal life if finding a job is made much more difficult. Of course,
they could still come with wads of cash and some might still live undetected,
but doing so would be much harder to pull off if getting a job is much more
Even if one favors a guestworker program for workers from Mexico or elsewhere
as the solution to illegal immigration, it would still be absolutely necessary
to put in place a strong work site enforcement regime before implementing a
guest worker program. Otherwise, there would be no incentive for those illegals
already in the country or those thinking about entering illegally to sign up
for such a program.
How would such a system work? There are two steps that are needed to make worksite
enforcement effective. First, a national computerized system that allows employers
to verify instantly that a person is legally entitled to work in the United
States needs to be implemented. Employers would submit the name, date of birth,
Social Security Number (SSN) or alien registration number to the INS of each
new hire. Much of this information is already collected on paper, but is not
used by the INS. After an instant check of its database, the employers would
then receive back from the INS an authorization number indicating that the person
is allowed to work in the United States. The authorization number from the INS
would provide the employer with an iron-clad defense against the charge that
they knowingly hired an illegal alien. Tests of such systems have generally
been well received by employers.
Document fraud, of course, is widespread, but a computerized system would be
a key tool in uncovering it. For example, a valid SSN that is attached to different
names submitted to the INS or a SSN and name that show up in many different
employers across the country would both be indications that a worker is trying
to skirt the law. The INS could develop procedures to identify potential problems
of this kind. When a potential problem is found, the INS would then go out to
the employer and examine all the paperwork for the employee, perhaps conduct
an interview with the worker and determine the source of the problem. This would
require the second important change that is needed: a dramatic increase in the
number of worksite inspectors. At present there are only the full-time equivalent
of 300 INS inspectors devoted to worksite enforcement, whose job it is to enforce
the ban on hiring the 5 or 6 million illegal immigrants now working in the country.
These numbers would have to be increased to perhaps 3,000.
These inspectors would perform two main tasks: they would go out to employers
identified by the verification system as having a potential problem and secondly
they would randomly visit worksites to see that employers were filing the paperwork
for each worker as required by law. Those employers found to be knowingly hiring
illegals would be made to pay stiff fines. Because the data needed for such
a system is already collected and the law already forbids the hiring of illegals,
all that is need is a verification system and significantly more resources for
worksite inspectors. Failure to developed such a system means that millions
of illegal immigrants will continue to work and live in the United State facing
little or no penalty. Not only does this make a mockery of the rule of law,
it also exposes the country to significant security risks.
Employment verification and alien registrations. Most of the recommendations
outlined above have dealt with temporary visa holders or efforts to reduce illegal
immigration. More effective monitoring is also needed of permanent residents,
i.e., legal immigrants, with "green cards," who will after a time
become eligible for citizenship. Several past terrorist attackers have been
legal immigrants, and that may well increase as a result of military reprisals
against terrorists overseas. In 1940, as a homeland security measure, Congress
required all non-citizens living in the United States to register annually their
whereabouts with the INS. This provision was repealed in the 1980s and should
probably not be revived in that form. Potential terrorists cannot be expected
to dutifully send in their addresses. However, the employment verification system
outlined above could be a very effective tool in locating non-citizen legal
immigrants. This is especially important when a person is placed on the watch
list after he has entered the country. At present, there is often no way for
the INS to know where that individual lives. However, the employment verification
process would provide the INS with the employer for non-citizen legal immigrants
who work. Thus, if it became necessary to arrest or at least undertake surveillance
of a non-citizen, their last known employer would be a place to start. The verification
system would in effect be alien registration for most resident aliens.
Integrated databases. One reform that would probably be relatively easy to undertake
would be for the INS to integrate all of its various databases. At present,
separate databases are maintained for non-immigrants, immigrants, citizenship
applications, and deportations. The INS needs to establish a single integrated
file on each foreign citizen that uses a biometric identifier like a digital
fingerprint. This file would contain information from each step in the visa
process: including each land border crossing, each entry and exit at airports,
each change in status at school or work, each arrest, as well any application
for permanent residence. This file should be accessible to law enforcement and
would remain open until the person becomes a citizen.
Reduce the Number of Permanent and Temporary Visas?
The responses outlined above, whether overseas, at the border, or inside the
United States, would not catch all malefactors. But the improvements outlined
above would almost certainly be very helpful in alerting us to large conspiracies
like the September 11 attacks. If only a few of the dozens of conspirators had
been identified by consular officers or border inspectors, it is very likely
that the entire conspiracy would have unraveled.
Less immigration means better enforcement. But what of the actual number of
people we admit via these mechanisms? There are two fundamental reasons to consider
reducing the number of student, exchange and worker temporary visas, and permanent
residence visas: the fewer visas we issue the more thorough the background checks
that can be conducted. Moreover, fewer visas also mean fewer foreign nationals
living in the United States, making it much easier to keep track of those allowed
into the country.
It seems very unlikely that the INS and State Department can undertake the necessary
reforms and expansions if they also have to continue processing hundreds of
thousands of new immigrant, foreign student, exchange and worker visas each
year. The General Accounting Office reported in May that the receipt of new
applications (green cards, citizenship, temporary workers, etc.) has increased
50 percent over the past six years, while the backlog of unresolved applications
has quadrupled to nearly 4 million. Few if any government agencies could be
expected to handle such a crush of new work while assuming added responsibilities,
even if provided with increased resources. The INS in particular has had a great
deal of difficulty in modernizing and using additional resources. Its computer
systems, for example, are among the most outdated in any part of the federal
government. This stems from a decision in the 1970s not to automate the files
so as to preserve low-level clerical jobs. As then-Commissioner Doris Meissner
told Government Executive magazine in a 1999 interview, "You don't overcome
a history like that in four to five years."
Solving the many problems with our immigration system will not be easy. There
have been various plans to reorganize the INS altogether, including splitting
the service and enforcement functions, either into two agencies or two separate
chains of command within the current INS. But money and institutional reorganization
won't be enough on their own. The best way to give the INS the breathing room
it needs to put its house in order and to address homeland security concerns
is to reduce its workload by reducing temporary and permanent immigration.
The fundamental changes in our immigration system proposed above should be an
especially attractive option because not only would they be politically popular,
but they also would not involve any infringement on the civil rights of American
citizens. The American people are going to have to wait in much longer lines
at airports and in other public places from now on, it is not too much to ask
foreign citizens to do the same.
Some may object to greatly increased screening, interior enforcement and border
control because only an tiny fraction of the millions of immigrants and visitors
(or non-immigrants) who come to the United States each year represent a security
threat. We are, some would say, looking for "a needle in a hay stack"
by focusing on immigration reforms. But this objection makes little sense. All
security measures are directed at only the tiny fraction of the population who
wish to break the law. Every persons who boards an airplane, for example, must
pass through a metal detector and have his baggage x-rayed. This is done not
because most or many intend to hijack the plane, but rather for the one out
of a million who is planning to do so. It is the same with screening immigrants
and controlling the border.
To be sure, no steps to reform immigration will catch all those who mean us
harm. But a lower level of immigration and dramatic improvements in visa processing
and border security could make an enormous difference. If only a few of the
dozens of people involved in the September 11 plot had been identified by consular
officers or border inspectors, or been apprehended when their visas expire it
is very possible that the entire conspiracy would have been uncovered. Persistent
terrorists will, of course, continue to probe our immigration system for weaknesses.
It is for this reason that we cannot, for example, improve visa processing but
leave large sections of our land border undefended. Only a vigorous, well-funded,
integrated border management infrastructure which employs the latest technology
and enjoys sustained political support can be expected to adapt to the every
changing terrorist threat. Moreover, only a well funded and run immigration
system will be able to utilize the new information that is expected to result
from the added resources that are now being devoted to intelligence gathering.
Today's underfunded and fragmented border control system, using out-of-date
technology, will certainly not be able to respond to the shifting challenges
of the future.
There can be little question that the suggested changes outlined above would
cost taxpayers billions of dollars to implement. But the alternative is to expose
the country to very significant risks that could be avoided. If we want the
American people to continue to support legal immigration, then we must make
every effort to reduce the possibility of terrorism in the future.
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