WASHINGTON (UPI) President Bush Monday ordered a sweeping review of U.S. immigration to keep suspected terrorists out of the country and to identify, prosecute and deport ones that might already be here.
"The American people are beginning to understand that we fight a two-front war against terror. We fight in Afghanistan ... and we fight at home, here, to make sure America's as safe as possible," Bush said.
All of the hijackers of the aircraft that destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon on Sept. 11 were foreign born. Nine of the 19 arrived in the country apparently legally, some on student visas to study flying. Several had violated visa regulations. Speaking to reporters at the first formal session of the Homeland Defense Council, a White House body that will form policy for the domestic war on terrorism, the president said that to carry out this tightening, he formed the "Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force, to make sure that the land of the free is is as safe as possible from people who might come to our country to hurt people."
"We welcome legal immigrants," the president said "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."
The task force will conduct a full review of student visa policies and "institute tighter controls and ensure that student visas are being issued appropriately," the White House directive said.
The president noted, "We plan on making sure that if a person has applied for a student visa, they actually go to college or university. And therefore we're going to start asking a lot of questions that heretofore have not been asked," he said.
"I'm going to tighten up the visa policy. That's not to say that we're not going to let people come into our country. Of course we are. But we're going to make sure that when somebody comes, we understand their intended purpose and that they fulfill the purpose on their application."
Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, found the new orders struck the "right balance," but cautioned that the question will be the fairness with which the administration selected who will enter and who will be barred.
The president instructed the task force to coordinate with Canada and Mexico to try to prevent suspected terrorists from entering through either of those neighboring countries. The U.S.-Canadian border runs over 5,000 miles and has been the entry point for suspected terrorists on several occasions. The U.S.-Mexican border is nearly 2,000 miles long and over 200,000 illegal aliens cross into the United States each year across those miles.
The problem for the task force is to how to tighten up access, particularly over those borders without restricting commerce and legitimate traffic flow.
The tightening may run counter to Bush's hope to legitimatize many of the illegal workers from Mexico now living in the United States. The idea was to give residency work permits to those workers with the caveat that they return to Mexico after the job was complete. "I suspect it will be harder politically to issue green cards (residency permits) to illegal aliens," said Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies.
The president's order sets in motion the most sweeping restrictions on U.S. immigration since the influx of Cubans after the Mariel boatlift two decades ago. It could result in locating and identifying the 8 million illegal aliens already in the United States and a significant tightening of U.S. borders as well as ports of entry.
"Their charge will be to look at all options, all policies and procedures relating to access of non-citizens to this country," Homeland Security director Tom Ridge said. "A point of access may become a point of vulnerability." Ridge said that the study may recommend changes in the law.
Immigration critics on Capitol Hill charge that in the past decade, the U.S. borders have been wide open, accepting some 27 million immigrants and ending up with an estimated 8 million people living in the United States illegally.
Steven A. Camarota, of the Center for Immigration Studies, said that some 450,000 illegal arrive in the United States each year, about half of them sneaking over the board and half by overstaying legal entries. "If 450,000 illegal aliens can get in, how do you keep out terrorists," he asked.
Congressional critics like Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr. D-Wis., chairman of the House Judiciary committee, charged that the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service have not been enforcing current visa and entry laws, thus allowing floods of illegal immigrants to move freely about the United States.
He and others particularly want the INS to keep track of foreign visitors to the United States and deport those who are not complying with the regulations. They complain that the government virtually abandoned internal enforcement in the 1990s.
The task force will include the State Department, FBI, CIA and Secretary of Treasury, as well as the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Energy Department, Education Department and the Department of Defense.