Don't let terror cross our borders

November 21, 2001|By Philip Martin and Susan Martin

WASHINGTON - Immigration policy cannot prevent terrorism, but it is a key ingredient of the effort to combat terrorism.

In response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Immigration and Naturalization Service received legislative authority to hold unauthorized foreigners with links to terrorists for up to seven days. Congress is considering more changes in immigration law and procedures to fight terrorism.

The pressure to adopt restrictive measures on the admission of foreigners will be strong, considering that the U.S. government gave most of the Sept. 11 hijackers permission to enter the country, although some of their visas expired before that fateful date.

About 40 percent of the estimated 8 million unauthorized aliens in the United States similarly entered with seemingly valid visas but did not abide by their terms, either staying after expiration of their visas or working in the country illegally. The remaining 60 percent are in the country illegally.

Already, commuter lanes along the border with Canada and Mexico have closed. Proposals have been made to require all foreigners to obtain visas, even those from European and other countries with low rates of visa abuse and reciprocal policies that waive visa requirements for Americans. Foreign student programs are under attack, and proposals for amnesty for Mexicans working illegally in the United States are on hold.

Immigration restrictions will not enhance security and may, in some cases, undermine the ability to identify and deter the entry of terrorists. The behavior of the Sept. 11 hijackers exposed four problems in U.S. immigration policy and procedures:

First, it appears that many of the hijackers received visas to enter the United States as tourists or students. The computerized "lookout" systems used in visa processing and inspections at airports did not flag them as terrorists.

Second, some of the hijackers violated the terms of their visas but were able to remain with impunity in the United States.

Third, even if they had been denied visas, the hijackers could have entered the United States with the hundreds of thousands of migrants who cross the border illegally.

Fourth, there was little cooperation between countries that might have pointed immigration authorities to the looming terrorism.

Many of these problems can be addressed with targeted policy changes:

Add well-trained and experienced visa and inspections staff and give them computerized systems that screen applicants for admission against intelligence data on terrorists. The National Automated Immigration Lookout System (NAILS) should be capable of matching not only names, which can be easily changed, but also such biometrics as facial characteristics.

Improve the sharing of information about suspected terrorists. NAILS would be more effective if it contained information from the FBI's National Crime Information Center, the major U.S. criminal database.

Deploy more effective and efficient electronic entry-exit control systems that would track people admitted under temporary visas. Commuter lanes, which use sophisticated technology to detect fraud, allow pre-screening of frequent border crossers and allow enforcement resources to focus on unknown applicants for admission.

The United States and Canada should harmonize visa and inspection policies to jointly fight the movements of terrorists.

Enhance the security of passports, visas, drivers' licenses and other identifying documents. Since Sept. 11, there have been calls for a national identification card. Other democracies have such cards, ranging from a voluntary system in France to a compulsory card that must be carried in Belgium, Germany, Greece and Spain.

Increase efforts to combat smuggling and trafficking operations that could be used by terrorist organizations to move people secretly. If the United States continues to tolerate large-scale unauthorized migration to supply low-wage workers to American businesses, it will be hard to extirpate smuggling.

Sept. 11 is likely to join Dec. 7 as a defining date in U.S. history. We don't need to commit another one to memory.

Philip Martin, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of California at Davis, was on the U.S. Commission on Agricultural Workers from 1989 to 1993. Susan Martin, director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University, was executive director of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform from 1993 to 1998. They are not related.

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