December 7, 2001


Don't Seal the Borders

Keeping workers out won't make us safer

By Linda Chavez

U.S. immigration policy was in need of a major fix before Sept. 11, but the issue has taken on new urgency in light of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. However, Americans won't be any safer from terrorist attacks by drastically limiting the number of Indian engineering students or Mexican poultry workers who come here, or by preventing the parents or children of Chinese immigrants from joining families already here.

Yet many of those screaming loudest for changes in immigration law would do just that, imposing drastic limits on legal immigration. What is needed, instead, is a focus on the problems in the system that make it possible for terrorists to enter and live here undetected, perhaps for years.

The Sept. 11 hijackers entered the country three ways, exposing different vulnerabilities in the current system: At least 15 entered on temporary visitors visas, one entered on a student visa, and the remaining three are presumed to have entered illegally, probably across the Canadian border.

By far the most intractable problem is securing our land borders with Mexico and Canada. Currently, some 9,000 federal agents patrol the 2,000-mile border with Mexico, while only about 400 patrol the border with Canada, which is more than twice as long. The Immigration and Naturalization Service apprehends more than a million illegal aliens each year, the overwhelming majority Mexicans entering the country to work.

Yet even before Sept. 11, the number of illegal aliens caught crossing the Mexican border was down drastically—about 25% less than the previous year—largely due to the downturn in the U.S. economy, which made scarcer the jobs the illegal aliens were seeking. Since the attack, even fewer have been caught. Less than half as many illegal aliens were apprehended trying to enter the U.S. in October 2001 than in the previous October.

The best way to stem the flow of illegal aliens altogether would be to create a flexible guest-worker program. The dramatic reduction in the flow of illegal aliens this year indicates that market forces already influence the number of foreign workers who want to come here. Why not make the process more rational—and legal—by creating a system that permits workers with needed skills to come here temporarily?

The Bush administration has indicated it might support such a program, but the current fear of foreign-born terrorists and a weak economy make it less likely that legislation could get through Congress any time soon. That's unfortunate, not least because a guest worker program that made it possible for Mexicans to come here legally to work in construction or in service jobs would mean fewer crossing the border illegally. If the Border Patrol could spend its time and resources hunting down Middle Eastern terrorists instead of Mexican bus boys, the country would be a safer place.

But what about those who enter legally—as visitors, students, or permanent residents? How can we reduce the risk that we are admitting terrorists, or those who aid and finance them?

First, we need to do a better job of keeping track of those who come here, whether for a day or permanently. A 1996 law that required all entries and exits from the U.S. to be recorded has never been fully implemented, largely due to technical problems. Currently, the law requires full implementation by 2005. It's no easy task to record the more than 300 million visits each year, but unless we know whether those on temporary visas have actually left, we have no hope of tracking down problem visitors. The Immigration and Naturalization Service is ill-equipped to take on this technical challenge, and the attorney general's announcement that he will split this agency into two probably won't fix the problem. Perhaps the private sector might be enlisted to come up with a workable database. Credit card companies and banks currently process billions of transactions a year; their expertise might help solve this problem.

We also need better information on the whereabouts of temporary and permanent resident aliens. For years, the U.S. asked all non-citizens to register their address with the INS once a year at their local post office, but this procedure was abandoned in the 1980s. Perhaps it's time to re-instate the program, using a new automated system that would collect the information efficiently and make it accessible to federal law enforcement when national security threats warranted. It would also make it easier to track down those who overstay their visas—about 40% of the illegal aliens presently in the country—if the INS ever decided to enforce the law consistently, which it has had neither the resources nor motivation to do up until now.

But by far the most important change needed is in the screening of persons who want to come here permanently or as visitors. Temporary visa applications are now processed by inexperienced employees in understaffed embassies and consulates abroad. In many countries, temporary visas are handed out on the spot, with no attempt to check the backgrounds of those applying. We need a better system, and one that recognizes that travelers from certain countries pose more risks.

The State Department's inspector general reported recently that one consulate in a country known to be a problem had an annual travel budget of $300 to do background checks on 100,000 visa applicants. Even after we learned that 15 of the 19 hijackers obtained visas in Saudi Arabia, only two of the 104 Saudis applying for visas between Sept. 11 and early October were called in for interviews by the American consulate in Jeddah, where 11 of the hijackers had obtained their visas.

All visa applicants from the Middle East deserve stricter scrutiny in light of current threats, as do travelers from other countries known to harbor radical Islamist groups, including Indonesia, the Philippines, Somalia, Pakistan and Bosnia. The administration's recent announcement that it will require more thorough background checks on some Mideast visa applicants is a welcome change. These steps will extend the time required to process visas and increase the cost. Higher fees to pay for more background checks and longer waits to ensure thorough investigations are an absolute necessity. Anyone with known ties to organizations that advocate, finance, or engage in terrorist attacks ought to be excluded—period. And that goes even more so for those applying for permanent resident status.

Finally, two other immigration categories need tightening up: foreign students and refugees. Some 500,000 student visas are given out each year, many to students from countries that support terrorism. Additional background checks on foreign students, coupled with better monitoring of whether prospective students actually attend schools once they get here, would make less likely cases such as that of hijacker Hani Hanjour, who never showed up for classes despite his student visa, or Eyad Ismoil, a Jordanian student who came here in 1989 but dropped out. Ismoil turned up again in 1993, when he drove the truck involved in the first attack on the World Trade Center.

Refugees, too, deserve a closer look. Some 22,000 refugees are approved and awaiting immediate entry once the White House gives the OK, including almost 6,000 Somalis and Liberians, more than 9,000 Bosnians, 1,300 Afghans, 700 Iranians, and 400 Iraqis. The State Department must ensure that none of these persons represents a national security threat, a difficult, if not impossible, task. For the time being, it might be better simply to hold off admitting any refugees—or indeed, other immigrants or visitors—from nations known to pose a terrorist threat.

It's not time to close our borders, but it is time we get more choosy in whom we admit.

(Ms. Chavez is president of the Center for Equal Opportunity in Washington. Used with permission from, a web site from Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

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