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November 2001, Volume 8, Number 11

Preventing Terrorism

The combination of an economic downturn and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack has altered the US immigration debate. Before the attacks, the pressing immigration issue was how to legalize the status of three to four million unauthorized Mexicans in the US. Legalization would have shifted the focus from preventing the entry of unauthorized foreigners to regularizing their status in the US.

Since the attacks, the big issue has been how to prevent foreigners from entering the US and committing terrorist attacks. In the minds of many Americans, the image of "immigrant" changed after September 11 from hard-working foreigners seeking the American dream to potentially deadly threats.

INS. The INS in mid-October 2001 reported that 13 of the 19 hijackers entered the US with apparently legal travel documents, and that there were no records of the entry of the other six. At least nine of the alleged hijackers had tourist or business visas; most arrived after May 2001.

The INS reported that it cannot find 300,000 foreigners who have been ordered out of the US. In 1999, the Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review dealt with 215,000 cases in which the government sought to deport a foreigner; in 25 percent of the cases, the foreigner did not show up for the hearing.

The INS stopped processing immigration and visa applications after September 11, 2001, leaving up to 20,000 refugees in camps abroad who were expecting to move to the US. The annual refugee quota for 2001 was 80,000, and about 68,000 arrived; the quota for 2002 is expected to be 70,000. Between October 2000 and August 2001, some 437,045 immigrants applied for US citizenship, and 6.8 million foreigners applied to the INS for other immigration benefits, including visa extensions and green cards.

INS Commissioner James Ziglar emphasized the distinction between immigrants and nonimmigrants. He said, "The hijackers were not immigrants. They were nonimmigrants. They were visitors to our country, who came here to do evil."

Congress/Bush. Congress approved anti-terrorism legislation, HR 3162, the Uniting and Strengthening America Act by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act of 2001. USA PATRIOT expands the government's ability to conduct electronic surveillance, detain foreigners without charges and penetrate money-laundering banks. The US State Department and INS are to be given access to the FBI criminal database at no cost; non-law enforcement agencies were denied access to this database in 1990.

Under USA PATRIOT, the US attorney general may certify that a foreigner is a suspected terrorist, and order him detained for up to seven days, after which he must be released or charged with criminal or immigration violations.

The 94 U.S. attorneys' offices and 56 FBI field offices across the US were ordered to begin implementing the counter-terrorism law immediately. There are already 1,000 people in custody as a result of the September 11 investigation, and the number is expected to rise sharply. Attorney General John Ashcroft said that the law would be enforced strictly, so that foreigners swept up in the investigation who have overstayed their visas "even by one day" could be deported.

On October 29, 2001, President Bush, announced the formation of a new Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force. Saying "I'm going to tighten up the visa policy," Bush ordered a major review of US immigration laws. He continued: "We welcome legal immigrants, and we welcome people coming to America. We welcome the process that encourages people to come to our country to visit, to study or to work. What we don't welcome are people who come to hurt the American people, and so therefore we're going to be very diligent with our visas and observant with the behavior of people who come to this country." Bush singled out foreign students: "We plan on making sure that if a person has applied for a student visa, they actually go to college or university."

Congress is considering immigration reforms in three areas to prevent future attacks: visa issuance abroad, inspections and border controls at US borders, and tracking foreigners inside the US. Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin), who chairs the House subcommittee on immigration, said he would introduce legislation to divide the INS into separate enforcement and service agencies. The US and Canadian governments also discussed creating a two-nation secure zone so that the US-Canada border could stay fairly open.

Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and Jon Kyl (R-Arizona) introduced legislation that would require the US to develop biometric visas encoded with an image of the holder's iris, palm print, digitized photo or other identifying characteristics, and create a centralized database of all visa holders and other non-US citizens who enter the country.

The Feinstein-Kyl bill would require airlines, cruise lines and cross-border bus lines to submit passenger manifests to the central database before departure to allow law enforcement screening; require the State Department to conduct background checks before issuing student visas; require all visa applicants to submit fingerprints and other biometric data to the State Department when applying for a visa; and tighten requirements for internal identification documents, including Social Security cards, pilot's licenses, work authorization cards, requiring biometric data and fraud and tamper-resistance controls.

A group of representatives led by Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colorado) on October 16, 2001 proposed a temporary moratorium on immigration, as well as the creation of a single border security agency, an entry-exit system to track foreign visitors, and an electronic system to verify identity documents for employment.

Visa Issuance. Almost 10 million foreigners a year apply for visas to enter the US; about 75 percent of them receive visas. It is believed that 16 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis; the US issued 60,508 visas to Saudis in FY00. The US State Department's "Look-out list" has 5.7 million names; the hijackers' names were not on it.

In October 2001, it was reported that 15 of the 19 hijackers obtained U.S. visas in Saudi Arabia, where most citizens seeking US visas are quickly approved without interviews; 11 got their visas in the coastal city of Jeddah, and four in Riyadh, the capital. Only three percent of Saudi applicants for visas were rejected in 2000 and 2001, largely because it was presumed that Saudis would not come to the US to work illegally. The Saudi government says some of the 15 may not have been Saudis.

After September 11, US consulates were instructed to "take a hard look at their current visa operations and see if there are any measures that could be taken to further strengthen the process…[including] application procedures, particularly those that waive personal appearance of the applicant."

Many foreigners enter the US without visas. The US permits nationals of 29 countries to enter the US for up to 90 days for business or tourism without visas; about 17 million foreign visitors arrived under this visa waiver program in 1999 (Americans do not need visas to enter these countries, most are in Western Europe). In addition, Canadians do not need visas to enter the US, nor do Mexicans living in border areas who want to enter the US to visit or shop near the border. The visa waiver program began in 1988. The State Department is reviewing the status of six countries that currently participate.

The US wants airlines bringing passengers to the US to provide passenger lists under the Advance Passenger Information System, so that inspectors can check names while the plane is in the air. There are about 100 airlines flying passengers to the US, and all except Saudi Arabian Airlines and Egypt Air participate in the APIS; Egypt Air said it would begin to participate. The anti-terrorism law requires all airlines to provide passenger information in advance, so that inspections can focus on suspicious passengers.

Borders/Inspections. About 530 million people, one-third of them returning Americans, cross U.S. borders each year; 350 million are foreigners who are not resident in the US. Most arrive via the 150 ports of entry along borders with Canada and Mexico. The INS has 4,775 INS inspectors to process persons who enter the US each year, and 1,977 investigators to deal with internal enforcement, such as locating people who overstay visas and work without authorization.

Congress in October 2001 approved a $20 billion package that would triple the number of Customs Service inspectors working at ports of entry along the Canada-US border -- from 1,773 to 5,319 - and triple the number of Border Patrol agents along the northern border from 300 to 900.

Border inspectors were put on high alert after September 11, and the tightened inspection procedures resulted in long lines of vehicles and commuters. As lines to enter the US lengthened from minutes to two to three hours, border-area businesses suffered, and members of Congress from California, Texas and Arizona complained. They said they recognized a need for strict scrutiny at the border, but that more inspectors were needed to keep traffic and commerce flowing. The INS has issued four million Border Crossing Cards, also known as laser visas, but has not installed machines to read the new cards, slowing entries.

Congress in 1996 ordered the INS to develop a tracking system to record the entrance and exit of foreigners at all US ports of entry by October 1, 1998. That did not happen. Entry-exit tracking on the US-Canadian border was opposed by Canada and northern US border states because they feared that long lines would slow cross-border commuting, trade and tourism. INS Commissioner James Ziglar assured Congress in October 2001 that entry and exit controls would be implemented in 2003 in all airports and seaports, extended to the 50 largest land ports in 2004, and to all US ports of entry by 2005.

The US already has a tracking system for foreigners who arrive by air. Foreigners complete the I-94 form by hand, present it to an immigration inspector and, when they leave the US, they return the departure part of the form to the airline.

Can an entry-exit tracking system detect terrorists? Ever-more sophisticated computers can ease the job of recording information, but duplicate and false names as well as the fact that some terrorists may have a clean record before they commit a terrorist act can limit the effectiveness of the databases created by entry-exit systems. They could, however, facilitate the location and removal of unauthorized foreigners. There are about 8.5 million unauthorized foreigners in the US, and 40 percent or 3.4 million arrived on tourist, business or student visas and overstayed their visas by remaining in the US.

Smuggling. An Iraqi-born naturalized Mexican, George Tajirian, pleaded guilty in El Paso in October 2001 to smuggling hundreds of Palestinian, Jordanian, Syrian, Iraqi, Yemeni and other foreigners through Mexico and into the United States between 1996 and 1998. Most of the migrants paid $10,000 to $15,000 each.

In 2000, the INS detained, at the US-Mexican border, 90 migrants from countries with majority Islamic populations, including Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan and Pakistan. Many more, 254, were detained along the Canadian border. Some 99.9 percent of the 1.64 million migrants detained on the US-Mexican border in 2000 were from Mexico and 16 other Latin countries.

A 20-year-old Mexican man from Guadalajara pleaded guilty in Arizona in October 2001 to 14 counts of illegal immigrant smuggling that resulted in death and on 11 counts of illegal immigrant smuggling that resulted in serious bodily injury or placed the immigrants' lives in jeopardy. The group was discovered by US Border Patrol agents May 23, 2001 southeast of Yuma.

The immigrants brought their own water and each paid the smugglers $1,400 for the illegal trek. The smuggler said he had successfully navigated the desert several times before, and he was to be paid $100 for each immigrant he delivered to a highway north of Ajo, Arizona. He worked on behalf of a Mexico-based smuggler, Evodio Manilla-Cabrera.

Tracking Foreigners. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, there were calls for a national ID card, most prominently by Oracle Corp. Chief Executive Larry Ellison, who said: "We've been so busy protecting ourselves against our government that we have made it impossible for our government to protect us." Ellison argues that "the IDs that the government issues, such as Social Security cards, should use modern credit card technology… The single thing that we could do to make life tougher for terrorists would be to ensure that all the information in myriad government databases was integrated into a single national file." Ellison offered to donate the software needed to create such a system.

Polls show that a majority of US residents would support a national ID card, but neither the Bush administration nor Congress seems likely to press for one. However, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators is planning to standardize the 50 state systems for issuing drivers' licenses, and is discussing the establishment of a centralized database of licensed drivers.

The American Council for International Personnel urged its 300-member firms to have their H-1B workers carry their passports and H-1B visas with them at all times. According to one study, 10 percent of the 350,000 tech employees in Silicon Valley are Chinese and Indian nationals with US work visas.

A student visa is often considered the easiest way for foreigners to enter the US. There are an estimated 515,000 foreign students in the US on student visas and 300,000 in the US with J-exchange program visas. Their US sponsors are 15,000 universities, colleges and vocational schools, including schools that offer aviation and other specialized training to foreigners. Schools admit foreigners who apply, and the foreigners then take their admission letters to US consulates to obtain student visas. Admission to English-language schools is generally easy, ordinarily requiring only the payment of tuition.

Once admitted to the US, students are expected to show up and begin classes. However, if they do not, there are no internal checks. Beginning in 2003, the Student Exchange Visitor Information System is to track foreign students in the US; they must pay a $95 one-time fee to cover the cost of the system.

Fortress North America. There have been calls to harmonize Canadian and US immigration and refugee policies in order to preserve the relatively open Canada-US border, and facilitate the $420 billion in two-way trade in 2000. A poll conducted by EKOS Research found that 53 percent of Canadians would accept a Canadian-US security perimeter "even if it means we must effectively accept American security and immigration policies."

However, many Canadian leaders oppose harmonization to US policies. Foreign Minister John Manley said: "The free circulation of goods at the Canada-U.S. border is an immediate priority for the government…But some distinctions must be made. Working closely with the United States does not mean turning over to them the keys of sovereignty in the areas of immigration, border control or foreign policy…The reality is that about half of our refugee claimants entered Canada from the United States," presumably after they were turned down or did not apply in the US.

Most of the 1990s build-up of border patrol agents has been on the Mexico-US border. In September 2001, 334 Border Patrol agents were assigned to the Canadian-US border; and the other 9,056 were on the Mexico-US border. There were 1.2 million apprehensions on the Mexico-US border in FY01, including 520,000 in Arizona. Apprehensions were down sharply from 1.6 million in FY00, but still more than the 980,000 in FY94, when the INS changed its strategy to try to prevent unauthorized entries. There have been about 12,000 to 13,000 apprehensions a year on the Canadian-US border.

Globalization. There are many discussions of what the terrorist attacks mean for the US and globalization. Benjamin R. Barber, author of Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism And Tribalism Are Re-Shaping The World (1996), said: "that this will bring to an end, once and for all, the myth of American innocence and American independence. For two and a half centuries, we've been the city on the hill, the second Eden, protected by two oceans from evils and deprivations and violence."

Many predicted that September 11, 2001 would join Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941) and the Kennedy assassination (November 22, 1963) as defining dates in US history, but with different long-term reactions. Pearl Harbor was followed by a government-led national mobilization to win World War II, while the Kennedy assassination and the Vietnam war led to distrust of big government. It is not clear what will follow September 11, although some expect frustration, since it may be hard to understand the hated of Americans, hatred so intense that there are some people willing to die in terrorist acts to kill Americans.

Global integration has been driven by technological progress and the desire for faster economic growth, and supported by political decisions taken at both the national and international levels. National decisions liberalized domestic economies and fostered the workings of the market, and international decisions led to agreements to liberalize trade and investment under the WTO, the European Union, and NAFTA. Globalization also means that terrorists can reach their targets more easily, their targets are exposed in more places, and news and ideas that inspire people to resort to terrorism can spread more widely and rapidly.

There are 150 million people living outside their countries of birth or citizenship, up from 75 million in 1965. Migration plays a critical role in facilitating terrorism, enabling perpetrators to come together just before an attack. In some cases, individuals can enter a country without being a member of a terrorist group, and join the group after their arrival. There may be "links" between terrorist groups without a hierarchy of control. When they go abroad, terrorists can find shelter and support in immigrant communities.


Mike Allen and Eric Pianin, "Bush Seeks Tighter Rules on Entry," Washington Post, October 30, 2001. Sam Dillon, "As Border Delays Grow, Process Draws Criticism," New York Times, October 29, 2001. Jesse J. Holland, "Bush Signs Anti-Terrorism Legislation," Washington Post, October 26, 2001. Sam Dillon, "Iraqi Accused of Smuggling Hundreds in Mideast to U.S.," New York Times, October 26, 2001. Rachel Zoll, "US Muslim census figures questioned," Associated Press, October 23, 20001. Mary Beth Sheridan, "U.S. Moves to Tighten Security on Borders," Washington Post, October 18, 2001. Dena Bunis, "House GOP group wants immigration curbs, deportees out," Orange County Register, October 17, 2001. Thomas B. Edsall, "Attacks Alter Politics, Shift Focus of Immigration Debate," Washington Post, October 15, 2001. "Canada promises tougher security moves this week," Reuters, October 9, 2001. James V. Grimaldi, Steve Fainaru and Gilbert M. Gaul, "Losing Track of Illegal Immigrants," Washington Post, October 7, 2001. Paul R Pil