Expert warned Congress about risky visa practices : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

For educational purposes only

He sounded the alarm but few listened.

Eighteen months before the Sept. 11 attacks, terrorism expert Steve Emerson testified before a Congressional subcommittee that terrorist organizations were fast building their ranks in the United States and that immigration “loopholes” were the reason why.

Among the loopholes: easy availability of student visas overseas, failures by universities to keep track of their foreign students, inadequate information sharing between government agencies and document fraud.

Now, with a massive investigation into the attacks under way and America, Emerson winces that his predictions proved so true that they startled even him.

“I take no pleasure in having been accurate,” said Emerson, a former journalist who now runs a counter-terrorism institute in Washington, D.C. “Even knowing what I know, this was worse than I imagined.”

Topping Congress’ immigration agenda are plans to tighten security by tracking foreign visitors and students and broadening powers to detain and deport suspected terrorists.

“It would be unforgivable if six months from now, or even three months from now, our immigration procedures were not tightened,’’ said U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Palm Beach. Wexler sits on the House Judiciary Committee, which on Monday will discuss the Bush administration’s proposals on counter-terrorism.

“America’s borders are entirely too susceptible to infiltration,” Wexler said. “It’s a shame it took this kind of attack to get our attention.”

The fast-moving debate will likely include tightening visa application procedures, said U.S. Rep. George Gekas, R-Pa., who chairs the House subcommittee on immigration.

“I don’t see how we can escape reconsidering how we treat student visas and other visas that have been used over the years,’’ he said.

It is not clear where, when or how 19 hijacking suspects wanted by the FBI entered the country. Reportedly, 16 of the 19 suspects entered on legal student or business visas.

Advocates of a more immigrant-friendly policy said that the failures of immigration laws did not cause the terrorist strikes. The Bush administration’s proposal to permit indefinite detention of suspected terrorists and to deport them without presenting any evidence or allowing for court review goes too far, they said.

And tighter screening of foreign students and visitors may not work because visitors may not turn to crime until long after they enter the country, said Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

“You can’t see into the heart and soul of a person when you are issuing a visa,” Butterfield said. “Tracking the comings and goings of 30 million visitors each year is not necessarily going to make us more secure. We need to look at better intelligence gathering and, on a deeper level, shaping better U.S. foreign policy.”

She has cautioned lawmakers to pause before enacting sweeping changes.

But others said change was inevitable.

“This marks a major shift,’’ said Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a group favoring less immigration.

Krikorian believes Congress will reinstate an excised section of the 1996 immigration reform law ordering INS to develop a computer database tracking all foreign visitors.

Observers also now expect INS to speed up efforts to establish a computer database tracking foreign students at U.S. campuses.

The debate on the link between immigration and terrorist groups predates the current rush to action.

In January 2000, Congress convened hearings after U.S. Customs agents arrested an Algerian national on the Canadian border who, they said, intended to blow up Los Angeles International Airport during the 2000 New Year’s celebrations. Ahmed Ressam was stopped with 100 pounds of explosives in his car.

Immigration subcommittee chairman Lemar Smith, R-Texas, convened several experts on Canadian border issues and terrorism. Expert Emerson spoke about flaws in U.S. immigration policy.

Afterward, several speakers said their comments fell on deaf ears.

“The attitude was, ‘Hey, look, we caught the guy,’’’ said Martin Collacot, a retired member of the Canadian Foreign Ministry. “We have this under control.”

At the hearing, Emerson warned that a full spectrum of Middle Eastern and Islamic terrorist organizations were operating in the United States, including Al-Qaeda, the organization of Osama bin Laden.

“False documents are as important to terrorists and their organizations as their guns and bombs,’’ Emerson said. “They are the tools that help them ply their international trade of death and destruction.”

Emerson’s work, which includes a 1994 documentary called Jihad in America, has been controversial among some Arab-American groups who, in the past, have said he exaggerated the extent of terrorist activity in the United States.

Emerson said the groups were in denial.

Now Emerson thinks that his ideas may be given more attention. Still, he remains skeptical about what lawmakers will ultimately do.

“I’ve learned never to predict,’’ he said. “But if this [attack] doesn’t wake us up, God help us.”

Jody A. Benjamin can be reached at or 954-356-4530.

-- K (, September 26, 2001

Moderation questions? read the FAQ