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Immigration and Terrorism -- Philip Martin, Susan Martin

Immigration and Terrorism:

Policy Reform Challenges

Philip Martin and Susan Martin[1]

October 8, 2001

Immigration Policy: Reform Challenges

Visas and Entry Inspections

Border Controls

Interior Enforcement

Foreign Students

Fortress North America?

International Cooperation?

On September 11, 2001, four commercial planes were hijacked in the US. Using the planes as bombs, the hijackers flew two into the World Trade Center in New York City; one was flown into the Pentagon in Washington DC, and the fourth crashed in Pennsylvania. Over 6,000 people were killed, most when the World Trade Center collapsed. The FAA immediately grounded all US planes to prevent further attacks.

The 19 men who hijacked the planes were foreigners who had been in the US from a week to several years. At least 16 entered at US ports of entry, with student or tourist visas; some of their visas appear to have expired before September 11, 2001. About 40 percent of the 8.5 million unauthorized foreigners in the US similarly entered with seemingly valid visas, but did not abide by the terms of their visa by e.g. departing within 90 days.

Osama bin Laden, a Saudi whose citizenship had been revoked and who has been living in Afghanistan, was believed to have financed and supported the hijackers through his Al Qaeda network. The US and its allies pledged to find and bring bin Laden to justice, and to dismantle Al Qaeda and other terrorist networks.

The federal government immediately made some immigration changes in response to the terrorist attack, such as holding foreigners who violate immigration laws 48 hours without charge, up from 24 hours. But the Bush administration is seeking more immigration changes, and the new Homeland Security Council, with 100 staff members comparable in size to the National Security Council staff, is likely to suggest even more as the 46 federal agencies whose work it coordinates to fight terrorism review the processes of issuing visas to foreigners, controlling their entry into the US, and ensuring that they abide by the terms of their visas inside the US.

Immigration policy reforms can not prevent terrorism, but they are a key part of any effort to combat terrorism. Immigration policies aim to facilitate the entry of wanted foreigners, and to identify and deter the entry of terrorists and other unwanted foreigners. This paper outlines the immigration reforms that could help prevent the entry of future terrorists.

Immigration Policy: Reform Challenges
The behavior of the September 11, 2001 hijackers highlights four problems in US immigration policy. First, it appears that, when they entered the US, all the hijackers presented seemingly valid travel documents at US ports of entry. Although their names were checked against computerized "look-out" systems, they were able to obtain visas at US consulates and pass through inspection at ports of entry.

Second, a tightening of the procedures used to screen foreigners entering the US with travel documents would not necessarily have prevented the entry of the terrorists. The "back door" of illegal entry across the borders with Mexico and Canada remains relatively open. Although the vast majority of those who enter illegally do so for jobs and higher wages and pose no security threat, the same vulnerabilities that permit large-scale unauthorized migration can be exploited by terrorists.

Third, the activities of the hijackers after their arrival demonstrates that the US does not track the movements of foreigners inside the US. For example, one hijacker was admitted to the US to study English, but never showed up at the school that admitted him. There were no consequences. The INS needs at least six months to notify a school that a foreign student has arrived in the US, and it takes several more months for the school to report to the INS that the student did not enroll. The INS must then decide what priority to place on locating the AWOL student. Real-time tracking of foreigners in such situations would be difficult and expensive.

Fourth, there are significant differences between countries in the treatment of individual foreigners, as exemplified by the activities of some of the hijackers in Germany, Canada, and the US. There is a problem of communication within each of these governments about potential terrorists, and between governments.

There were warnings of potential problems with terrorists abusing the immigration system before the September 11, 2001 attacks. For example, the National Commission on Terrorism in a 2000 report concluded that, "In spite of elaborate immigration laws and the efforts of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the United States is, de facto, a country of open borders." However, former INS General Counsel David Martin cautions that: "There isn't a magic bullet in overall immigration screening or monitoring in this country that provides an adequate response to a small group of very dedicated and clever people who want to commit terrorist acts."

There are three major areas in which changes in immigration policies may be able to counter future terrorist threats: visa issuance and entry inspections, border controls, and interior enforcement. The US may also have to pay special attention to foreign students, and consider harmonizing immigration and asylum policies with Canada in order to preserve a fairly open Canadian-US border.

In considering the problems highlighted by the terrorist attacks, and the options to head off future attacks, it is important to remember that there is a trade off between enhanced security and a range of other public goods, including privacy and respect for civil liberties in a society open to immigration. US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in September 2001 said that, in response to terrorism, "we're likely to experience more restrictions on our personal freedom than has ever been the case in our country…[but] at what point does the cost to civil liberties from legislation designed to prevent terrorism outweigh the added security that that legislation provides?"

Visas and Entry Inspections
Discussion of how to prevent terrorists from entering the US has focused primarily on the "front door:" the issuance of visas to foreigners abroad, and the inspection of foreign nationals at US ports of entry. Almost 10 million foreigners applied for visas to enter the US in 2000, and about 75 percent of visa applicants received visas. Some 1,100 consular officers, most young people at the start of their foreign service careers, deal with visa applications in more than 200 consulates and embassies worldwide. Consular officers have only a limited time to review visa applications, limited access to law enforcement look-out databases, and no effective feedback on the results of their decisions, such as who returns from the US as required by the visa and who does not.

Immigration inspectors at US ports of entry also have only a limited time to review documents, particularly at land ports of entry on the Canadian and Mexican borders. Unlike members of the Border Patrol and immigration investigators, immigration inspectors are not law enforcement officials and do not have access to some of the information in criminal databases.

How can the databases available to consular officers and immigration inspectors be improved? The INS maintains the National Automated Immigration Lookout System, or NAILS, and the INS, Customs and the State Department use NAILS to screen foreigners seeking visas or entry to the US. NAILS is a name-based system that is effective only if an applicant for admission uses a name that has already been entered into the database; false names, supported by fraudulent documentation, can fool NAILS. An improved look-out database must be capable of matching not only names, which can be easily changed, but also biometrics as fingerprints and facial characteristics. NAILS can also be enlarged by receiving information from the FBI's National Crime Information Center, the major US criminal database.

However, improving the databases available to consular officers and immigration inspectors can not stop all terrorists. Most of the 31 million plus foreigners who enter the US temporarily each year do so without visas under reciprocal visa waiver policies that permit nationals of 29 countries to enter the US for up to 90 days without visas. When French or Japanese tourists or business visitors show up at US ports of entry, the inspector examines their passports, and they are routinely admitted. One of the hijackers was believed to be a recently naturalized French citizen who entered the US under the visa waiver program.

In addition, no visas are required of Canadians entering the US, and Mexicans living in the border region are admitted to the US with Border Crossing Cards that permit limited travel in the US. There are some 500 million crossings at the Canadian and Mexican borders each year, and inspectors generally process those arriving on foot or by car very quickly, especially during morning commutes. More careful inspections quickly lead to long lines, which interferes with tourism and commerce.

Congress in 1996 approved legislation that required the INS to develop system that recorded the entries and exits of all foreign visitors by October 1, 1998. For those arriving by air, entry-exit tracking involves the foreigner completing and I-94 form, and returning the departure part of the form to the airline when they leave the US, which in turn transmits it to the INS. However, compliance with this requirement is spotty; some airlines are more consistent than others at obtaining and turning over the I-94s. Those entering and exiting the US at land borders are also supposed to turn in I-94s forms, but the processes there are even less well developed than at airports. In any event, I-94 forms are completed by hand and cannot be used to track the departure of specific persons until the data are entered into a computer.

Entry-exit tracking was opposed by Canada and northern border states, prompting the US Senate to vote three times to repeal entry-exit tracking. The major argument against entry-exit tracking is the economic cost. Some 130 million persons crossed the 4,000 mile Canada-US border in 2000, and about $1.5 billion worth of goods cross the border each day. If each person had to be checked on entry and exit, and trucks were checked carefully, the argument was that cross-border commuting, trade, and tourism would be curtailed sharply.

Technology is available to implement entry-exit controls. For example, Australia uses an electronic visa that is incorporated into the airline ticket, which simplifies airline compliance and transmission to immigration authorities-- this could be a model for a similar US program. Effective exit controls at land borders are more cumbersome, but experiments with commuter lanes on the Mexico-US border that permit officials to pre-screen regular travelers and issue them more secure documentation and devices for their cars have been shown to speed crossings without sacrificing security, and could be expanded. By allowing more people to enter and exit the US in commuter lanes, limited resources could be devoted to those who have not been pre-screened.

Border Controls
The relative openness of the US-Mexico and US-Canada borders provides the opportunity for unauthorized entry. In FY00, the US Border Patrol apprehended 1.6 million persons attempting to enter illegally (one person caught three times is three apprehensions), and a large but unknown number of people eluded the Border Patrol and entered the US. The vast majority of these migrants are Mexicans and Central Americans seeking better economic opportunities, but there are a growing number of migrants from outside the region are transiting Mexico to enter the United States.

In response to high levels of illegal migration in urban areas of California, Texas and Arizona, the Border Patrol stepped up enforcement efforts in urban areas, adding agents, fences and lights in an effort to push migrants attempting illegal entry to more remote areas, such as the desert areas of Arizona. The theory was that denying entry in urbanized areas from discourage migrants from attempting unauthorized entries. There is as yet no evidence to suggest that especially young men have been discouraged from attempting unauthorized entry, but there the cost of unauthorized migration has increased to $1,000 or more per attempt, and migrants generally must now use the services of human smugglers.

Expanding the more agents, fences and lights strategy to more of the 2000 mile Mexican-US border would help to deter unauthorized migrants, and thus make it harder for terrorists to enter with migrants, and to take advantage of the smuggling infrastructure that has evolved. However, a decision to expand border controls would cost more money for agents and technology. During the 1990s, when the size of the Border Patrol tripled to about 9,500, the INS found it difficult to recruit, train and retain Border Patrol agents.

Interior Enforcement
Former INS Commissioner Doris Meissner noted that there was a political consensus in the 1990s that spending on border enforcement should be increased, but no consensus on whether interior enforcement efforts should be increased. Illegal immigration has traditionally been associated with the magnet of US jobs, so most strategies to reduce illegal immigration have tried to close the labor market door or "demagnetize the labor market."

In 1986, the US enacted sanctions employers who knowingly hire unauthorized workers, as well as those for employers who fail to check that the workers they are legally authorized to work in the US. These policies have not stemmed the influx of unauthorized job seekers, largely because fraudulent documents are readily available that can easily used by migrants to be hired, and that protect employers from sanctions. During the 1990s economic boom, INS enforcement efforts were curtailed, a result of pressure on the INS to apprehend and remove criminal aliens and employer and migrant advocate complaints whenever there was work place enforcement.

The documents most often used by unauthorized migrants to get hired are drivers' licenses issued by states; these picture ID cards, coupled with false immigration visas or green cards, are usually copied and attached to the verification form that employers and newly hired workers sign to show they satisfied the employer sanctions laws . During the 1990s, many states made it easier for unauthorized migrants to obtain drivers' licenses (and state ID cards for those who do not drive), under the theory that all drivers should learn the rules of the road and be insured. Three of the hijackers apparently got Virginia ID cards, since that state required only a notarized form co-signed by a Virginia resident or a notarized identity form co-signed by a lawyer. Virginia now requires applicants must now provide a social security number and proof of Virginia residency.

Other states are increasing training to detect forged documents that may be presented by applicants, and there is a new effort to develop a central database of licensed US drivers. However, a centralized database still has limitations, since states such as California allow anyone to obtain their own or someone else's certified certificate of birth, which can be used to get a drivers' license.

The most controversial proposal to improve interior enforcement is a national identification system that would require both US citizens and legally present foreigners to present a counterfeit-resistant work authorization document, such as a new social security card. In 1994, a federal commission proposed a computerized system to check the social security numbers of all job applicants; employers would submit newly hired workers' numbers for verification much as merchants submit credit card information for verification. A broad coalition opposed the plan, decrying it as a precursor to a national ID card, and this recommendation was not implemented.

Foreign Students
There are 500,000 to 600,000 foreign students in the US; 284,000 foreigners received student visas in FY00. About 11 percent of the foreign students are from China, followed by 9 percent from Japan and 8 percent each from India and Korea. The number of foreign students has increased sharply: there were about 50,000 foreign students in 1970, 300,000 in 1980, and 400,000 in 1990

In order to study in the US, a foreigner must apply to one of about 15,000 US universities, colleges or vocational schools and be admitted. The admission letter allows the foreigner to go to a US consulate and obtain an F-student visa; the major issues for the consular officer are whether the foreigner has enough funds to live and study in the US, and whether the foreigner is likely to return.

Foreign students show up at US ports of entry, and the INS is supposed to notify the school that the foreigner entered the US. If the student does not enroll, the school is supposed to notify the INS, which can devote its interior enforcement resources to finding the student and removing him from the US for violating the terms of his visa. This rarely happens.

During the late 1970s, when the US embassy in Iran was taken hostage and questions were raised about the activities of Iranian students in the US, there were calls for a system to track foreign students. The call for a foreign student tracking system was renewed after it was discovered that one of the foreigners involved in the February 26, 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center was in the US with an expired student visa. However, US universities opposed a tracking system, and blocked its implementation for a decade. After September 11, 2001, they dropped their opposition, and the Student and Exchange Visitor Program tracking system is expected to be fully operational in 2003.

Fortress North America?
Several of the hijackers spent time in Canada, a country that accepts more immigrants per capita than any other, and that has more generous asylum and refugee policies than the US. Canadian asylum policies came under fire several times in the 1990s, primarily because Canada has been accused of allowing 50 groups that Canadian Security Intelligence Service said were supporting terrorists to raise funds and operate freely in Canada.

Most of the alleged terrorist attacks that were financed and planned in Canada occurred outside North America, in places such as Sri Lanka. However, in December 1999, Algerian Ahmed Ressam was caught attempting to enter the US from Canada with bomb-making materials that he planned to use to bomb the Los Angeles International Airport. Ressam arrived in Canada in 1994, applied for asylum and was rejected. Despite several arrests on charges of breaking into automobiles, Ressam not deported because Canada stopped deporting Algerians in 1997. In 1999, he obtained a Canadian driver's license and passport under a false name with a forged baptismal certificate, and made an attempt to enter the US to commit terrorism.

Should the US and Canada harmonize their immigration and asylum policies so that terrorists do not plan attacks on the US in Canada, or vice versa? Harmonized policies could erect a "security perimeter" around Canada and the US, and leave the Canada-US border largely unguarded. Canada and the US could look to the Schengen Agreement, which has permitted freer movement within the European Union because entry and exit controls are done at the external border of the 13 participating countries. The Schengen visa, which is issued after checking the Schengen Information System, permits travel within all of the participating countries. Such a system could be feasible with Canada, and perhaps eventually with Mexico, if the Mexican economy improves and the illegal immigration problem disappears.

International Cooperation?
Globalization has been the defining feature of the late 20th century, exemplified by sharply increased trade in goods and inter-connected financial markets. Globalization means cross-border connectivity, including bridges over borders to expedite flows of goods and people. The threat of terrorism will require gates on these international bridges, as countries slow the arrival of goods and people to ensure that they do not pose a danger.

International cooperation can help to prevent terrorism from slowing globalization. Cooperation and data sharing can help to identify suspected terrorists, and prevent them from moving legally from one country to another and carrying out attacks. Cooperation will also be needed to combat smuggling and trafficking operations that could be used by terrorist organizations to move persons clandestinely.

The freer movements of goods and people of the past several decades are associated with faster economic growth and convergence across the industrial democracies in their economic and immigration goals. Terrorists pose a new challenge. As with past common challenges, tackling terrorism is likely to result in closer cooperation among the industrial democracies that gradually leads to a convergence in their immigration and asylum policies.


[1] Philip Martin ( is a professor of agricultural economics at UC-Davis. He was a commissioner on the US Commission on Agricultural Workers (1989-93) and is editor of the monthly Migration News (// Susan Martin ( is director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University She was executive director of the US Commission on Immigration Reform (1993-98).