INS unable to track millions inside U.S.

No computer system, so those who overstay visas can easily vanish

Terrorism Strikes America

The Nation

September 22, 2001|By Mike Adams | Mike Adams,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

In an age when financial institutions can track billions of dollars down to the penny, U.S. immigration officials lack a centralized computer system to track people who overstay their visas.

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have focused attention on the Immigration and Naturalization Service's capacity to track and monitor millions of visa holders.

Meanwhile, reports that some of the hijackers might have used stolen identities have led the head of an immigration watchdog group to call for computerized visa files that include a digital thumbprint.

Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, also favors reviving the practice of requiring all permanent residents who are not citizens to register with the government. The practice was discontinued in the 1980s, he said.

At least 16 of the 19 hijackers entered the nation legally, and like the vast majority of visa holders, they simply melted into society and beyond the scope of the INS.

A look at three of the hijackers shows the ease with which they obtained visas from the State Department and moved about the nation without drawing the attention of INS and other authorities:

A man identified as Hani Hanjour obtained a student visa to take English lessons in California. But he never showed up for classes and helped to hijack the plane that dove into the Pentagon. He lived in Phoenix, Ariz., and San Diego before he showed up in Maryland in August and tried to rent a small plane.

Another hijacker who took part in the Pentagon crash, Khalid al-Midhar, took flying lessons in California. He had two visas - a valid business visa and an expired tourist visa.

Marwan al-Shehhi had a tourist visa when he and other hijackers crashed a plane into the south tower of the World Trade Center.

The terrorist attacks, which included the downing of an airliner in Shanksville, Pa., have left more than 6,000 people dead or missing and triggered the largest criminal investigation in the nation's history.

At least 75 people believed to have ties to the terrorists are being detained indefinitely by federal authorities on alleged immigration violations.

An INS official close to the investigation said some of the detainees had stayed in the country after their visas expired and others had obtained unauthorized jobs.

One of the suspects, Zacarias Moussaoui, was arrested Aug. 17 in Minnesota after he tried to buy time on a flight simulator for jetliners at a Minnesota flight school, law enforcement officials said.

Moussaoui obtained a visa to attend a flight school in Norman, Okla. Moussaoui applied for his visa in London. He accumulated only about 56.9 hours of flight time before he dropped out of the program because of poor flying skills.

Dale Davis, the director of operations at Airman Flight School in Oklahoma, said Moussaoui contacted the school by e-mail last September and inquired about lessons.

Davis said the school sent Moussaoui an I-20 immigration form so he could apply for an M-1 visa that's issued to students at vocational schools.

Moussaoui paid a total of $5,000, half by check and the other half in cash, Davis said, adding that Moussaoui did not fly well enough to solo, something most students accomplish in less than 40 hours.

"I talked to him about two weeks before he left," Davis said. "I told him he wasn't progressing, and he said he'd think about it."

Davis said Moussaoui spent a couple of nights in housing the school provides for students, then he got an apartment. Davis said Moussaoui had a car; he couldn't remember the make, but said, "It wasn't fancy."

Investigators have traced several of the hijackers to flight schools across the country. Al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhamzi, another hijacker aboard the plane that crashed into the Pentagon, took flying lessons at Sorbi's Flying Club in San Diego, they said.

Hanjour obtained a student visa to study English at a Berlitz ELS Language Center in Oakland, Calif. But "he never showed up, we never saw him," said Michael Palm, a Berlitz spokesman.

The FBI reported that Hanjour lived in Phoenix and San Diego before he turned up at Freeway Airport, near Bowie, in August, about a month before the Pentagon crash.

Marcel Bernard, chief flight instructor at Freeway, said Hanjour had a valid pilot's license and a medical certificate, but he was turned down after he failed three flight tests.

Bernard said Hanjour's English was "functional" but his flying skills were "poor." He said Hanjour failed tests given by instructors who took him on a route over the Chesapeake Bay, east of Washington's airspace.

Bernard said although Hanjour had a pilot's license, his flying did not show that he was well trained. After he failed the third test, he was "turned away," Bernard said.

In recent years, the number of visas issued has been growing.

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