Nation's open borders in spotlight : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

It is ironic that one person in Congress more than any other was responsible for this: Senator Spencer Abraham. The good people of Michigan "fired" him last November in the election. Unfortunately, President Bush made him Secretary of Energy!

For educational purposes only

Nation's open borders in spotlight

By Mike Dorning Washington Bureau Published September 26, 2001

WASHINGTON -- The nation's border controls and visa procedures are rife with weaknesses that provide little assurance potential terrorists will be stopped from entering the country.

Authorities are investigating how the 19 hijackers who attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon Sept. 11 entered the U.S., but at least some of them were admitted on business and student visas. The Bush administration has said it is reviewing the country's visa policies. The primary defense against a potential foreign terrorist coming to the United States is a watch list of suspects that is no better than the sometimes-questionable intelligence upon which it is based. Even then, the computerized lookout system at the border and at U.S. visa offices abroad can identify suspects on the list only if they use their own name or an alias already known to authorities, immigration officials said.

Foreign visitors are not even checked against the watch list if they cross over a land border and can convince an immigration inspector that they are a citizen of Mexico or Canada, said immigration officials.

Neither Mexican nor Canadian citizens are required to show passports to cross the border by land, and a permissive refugee policy in Canada allows many political dissidents to settle there and gain identification documents such as driver's licenses.

No system for tracking

Once a visitor is allowed into the United States for a temporary stay, there is no reliable system for tracking whether they have left as scheduled.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service has no system for the timely monitoring of whether foreign students or workers admitted to the United States have even shown up at the schools or workplaces named in their visas, much less what they are studying or doing on the job.

The nation's border controls reflect the priorities of a government and people that have long placed a high value on freedom of movement, convenience in travel and the continued flow of international commerce that is an increasingly vital component of the nation's prosperity.

They also reflect the resources Congress has been willing to devote to the INS' and the State Department's unglamorous consular services at a time when political debate has been dominated by disputes about tax cuts and changes in education policy and other social services.

Inspectors overwhelmed

With a little more than 5,000 immigration inspectors handling more than a half-billion border crossings per year, the screening of immigrants at the nation's ports of entry is often perfunctory.

Mabel Rogers, a regional vice president in the union representing INS employees and an inspector at Houston Intercontinental Airport, described the airport screenings as averaging about a minute, unless an inspector becomes suspicious and refers a traveler for a more in-depth screening.

Visa applications are handled at embassies abroad by relatively junior foreign service officers who consider it an unwelcome rite of passage, according to several former State Department officials.

Although visa officers check applicants against the terrorist watch list and generally pay closer attention to suspicions of terrorist connections in countries where the danger is thought to be especially great, they still typically focus during visa interviews on weeding out visitors who might remain in the United States to work, said Don Hamilton, a former State Department counterterrorism official and former foreign service officer in the Middle East.

But in the wake of the terrorist attacks, political pressure is rising for tighter controls.

"We're going to have to revamp the way we admit people to the country," said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), a longtime advocate of stricter immigration controls. "It's going to have to start with better background checks, closer scrutiny of people applying for visas and more people working at the border."

The calls for stricter immigration controls reprise the mood that followed the previous bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993.

A computerized tracking system to monitor foreign students has been repeatedly delayed, and only an experimental system exists; it covers a handful of Southern schools.

Colleges resisted the system for years because Congress initially funded the program through fees collected by the schools and because of civil liberties concerns in the academic community. An association representing foreign student advisers reversed its opposition in the wake of the attacks this month.

There has been no progress on a system to monitor the departure of foreign visitors. The only way to do so effectively would require immigration inspectors to stop traffic leaving the country as well as entering the country. Congress has postponed the system amid vociferous opposition from businesses in border states and elsewhere that fear a slowdown in border traffic.

"You've got land borders with our two largest trading partners in the world. You've got an incredible amount of commerce crossing our land borders every day," said Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

The terrorism watch list has its own weaknesses.

Intelligence services have had difficulty penetrating terrorist organizations. Information shared by foreign intelligence agencies is crucial to developing the watch list. But information from another government may not be reliable or may be an attempt to retaliate against political dissidents by labeling them as terrorists.

"Is a foreign intelligence service playing straight with you? Is the foreign intelligence service sloppy? Do you as the State Department want to start denying entry to the United States simply because a foreign government has labeled them a terrorist?" asked Hamilton, who is now deputy director of the Oklahoma City Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism.

-- K (, September 26, 2001

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