'Wake-Up Call' On Immigration

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'Wake-Up Call' On Immigration By Sandra Peddie and Eden Laikin Investigations Team

October 14, 2001

When U.S. authorities arrested Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, they made a chilling discovery -- he had slipped many times through loopholes and lapses in immigration policy as he plotted terrorism on American soil.

That prompted Congress in 1996 to pass sweeping changes in immigration law, including two key anti-terrorism measures. After intense political pressure by various interest groups, however, neither measure was ever fully implemented, despite warnings that the nation was at risk without them.

Both programs -- an automated system to record when a foreigner enters and leaves the country and a student visa database -- are back on the front burner as officials in Washington grapple with how to prevent another terrorist attack within U.S. borders.

Proponents see them as critical anti-terrorism measures that might have kept out some hijackers, or at least disrupted the conspiracy.

"Who knows what would have been done, or what could have been done” had the measures been implemented, asked Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Smith), a chief proponent of the 1996 law, adding that tracking systems "serve as a deterrent.”

There are "different levels of wake-up calls,” said one congressional staffer. "This one was much louder. It's hard to hit the snooze button on this one.”

Thirteen of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers entered the United States legally, according to information just released by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Three of them had overstayed their visas. Two entered the country on student visas. The INS was unable to find records for the remaining six hijackers.

Mohamed Atta, regarded as the ringleader of the attack, was admitted as a non-immigrant visitor in July. He traveled freely to and from the United States during the past two years and was what the INS calls "in legal status” the day of the attack. A number of the other hijackers also traveled with ease within the country.

In June of last year, a report by the National Commission on Terrorism sounded an alarm about the ease of terrorist movement: "While the problems of controlling America's borders are far broader than just keeping out terrorists, the Commission found this an area of special concern.”

Citing the 1993 bombing, it said, "Today, there is still no mechanism for ensuring the same thing won't happen again.”

Today, instead of the nationwide tracking systems called for in the 1996 law, there are only small pilot programs in place. Only three airports -- in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Charlotte, N.C. -- use an automated entry-exit system. And although 4,500 colleges and universities accept foreign students, only 21 participate in the student visa database program called CIPRIS (Coordinated Interagency Partnership for Regulating International Students).

In testimony before a congressional immigration subcommittee in January of last year, Steven Emerson, who has done extensive research on terrorism, warned of terrorists overstaying the time allotted on student visas. More frustrating, he said, "is the ease in which terrorists and militants freely enter the U.S. for shorter periods of time.”

Although there appears to be broad support for tightening borders and preventing terrorists from moving freely within the United States, both programs still face political obstacles.

"Each proposal needs to be measured against the standard of does it really do anything to make us safer, and at what cost?” said Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

The automated entry-exit system was supposed to have been put in place throughout the nation by May of this year. Canadian officials and other business interests argued that such a system would slow border traffic so much that it would be economically crippling. One group told Congress that so many cars cross one busy bridge on the northern border that it would take four days to record the data generated by one day's traffic. Congress quietly extended and then staggered the deadlines for implementing the system.

At the time, Rep. Smith said the delay provided "a welcome mat to every terrorist and drug smuggler who is looking for an easy way into the United States.”

Immigration policy has been aimed at making it easier for visitors to enter the country. People with passports from 29 "friendly” countries (ranging from Britain to Spain to Singapore) do not need a visa to enter the United States. They fill out a form, present it to an INS inspector upon arrival and submit to a brief interview.

People entering from other countries obtain visas from U.S. embassies or consulates in their home countries. They fill out forms stating the purpose and expected duration of their visit and must demonstrate their intent to return home. Anyone from a country designated as a state sponsor of international terrorism may be required to provide additional documentation. Once travelers with visas arrive, INS inspectors check their names against lists of suspected criminals and terrorists.

Once a visitor is inside the country, however, the INS has no comprehensive system to keep track of when a foreign national leaves. INS officials estimate that 40 to 50 percent of all illegal immigrants in the country have overstayed their visas.

To remedy the problem, three senators have proposed implementing an entry-exit system using biometric technology. Such technology verifies a person's identity by using features that cannot be forged, such as fingerprints or patterns in the iris of an eye.

Such a system might have kept Rahman, mastermind of the 1993 bombing, out of the country. Even after authorities had linked him to the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and the 1990 murder of Rabbi Meir Kahane, Rahman was able to enter the United States under a different name. Later, after his visa was revoked and his name was entered into a special lookout database, he re-entered the country and was able to get permanent residency, according to a U.S. State Department chronology.

"Everything that could have gone wrong did,” State Department counselor Timothy Wirth said later. Rahman's residency was revoked in March 1993, the month following the World Trade Center bombing. An effective entry-exit system, however, depends upon proper data entry, and government auditors have found numerous errors in immigration data caused in part by keying problems. In addition, a March 1998 report by the Justice Department's Inspector General found that an INS biometric system in use in the Southwest was ineffective because only 41 percent of the fingerprints of deported and criminal aliens were entered in it.

"We also found there were virtually no controls in place to ensure the quality of data entered. ... As a result, we found duplicate records and invalid data,” the report said.

Aside from screening out undesirable aliens, an automated biometric system would, for the first time, give the INS a reliable count of the number of people overstaying their visas.

"We have always been a nation that welcomes the world, but when someone overstays their welcome, a red flag should go up,” said Sen. Kent Conrad (R-N.D.), one of the sponsors of the legislation.

A September 1997 report by the Justice Department's Inspector General found that the INS could not identify people overstaying their visas or even provide accurate numbers of overstays. The report also pointed out that the 1996 law called for the INS to add 300 staffers to investigate visa overstays but that those positions were never funded.

Critics say even with accurate data on visa overstays, there is no way to track people once they're in the country.

"What are we talking about, ankle bracelets and tattoos?” said Butterfield, of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

John Keeley, of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors reduced immigration, conceded that an entry-exit system might not have prevented the Sept. 11 attack, but, he said, "What you hope to do is disrupt a conspiracy or network.”

The other key reform aimed at tracking terrorists was a nationwide database of foreigners here on student visas. After the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, authorities learned that Eyad Ismoil, who drove the truck bomb into the underground garage, had entered the country in 1989 to attend Wichita State University in Kansas. He attended three semesters and dropped out.

Foreign students represent significant income to the educational community because they often pay full tuition. Last year, 659,081 foreign students entered the United States. California has the highest number of foreign students, with 99,542 in 1998, the latest year for which figures were available. New York has the second-highest number, with 62,072, an INS spokeswoman said.

A small number of foreign students come here from countries designated by the U.S. State Department as state sponsors of international terrorism. Last year, the State Department issued 1,313 student visas to students from the five Arab state sponsors of terrorism: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria.

As part of the 1996 immigration law, Congress directed the INS to set up a student visa database. It was to include the student's name, address, current academic status and any disciplinary action by the school or information of a crime.

The INS proposed funding the system with a $95 fee collected by schools from foreign students. That set off howls of protest by education groups, in particular, the Association of International Educators, a professional group known as NAFSA.

Colleges objected to collecting a fee for the federal government, said Victor Johnson, the group's associate executive director for public policy.

In addition, they objected to singling out foreign students for anti-terrorism measures, he said. They sent thousands of letters to members of Congress. Their opposition, along with that by some other educators, stalled the system. By last spring, the system had been significantly delayed.

At the same time, the National Commission on Terrorism warned, "Of the large number of foreign students who come to this country to study, there is a risk that a small minority may exploit their student status to support terrorist activity.”

Hani Hanjour, one of the hijackers who crashed a plane into the Pentagon Sept. 11, appears to have done just that. He entered the United States last December on a student visa, according to an official familiar with his records. Hanjour received the visa after being accepted from Saudi Arabia to a four-week intensive English-language course in Oakland, Calif.

He was scheduled to start his studies in November 2000, but, "He never showed up,” said Michael Palm, a spokesman for ELS Language Centers, a subsidiary of Berlitz International, Inc.

That did not set off any alarms, Palm said, because about 10 percent of foreign students do not show up. The company's ELS school in Atlanta participates in CIPRIS. The Oakland school does not.

Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.), Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Me.) and Sen. Conrad said in a news conference last week that they planned to ask for legislation requiring schools to notify the INS if someone on a student visa leaves the school or fails to show up.

Since Sept. 11, NAFSA, the group that lobbied hard against the student visa database system, appears to have softened its views. Marlene Johnson, the group's executive director, said in a statement, "The time for debate on this matter is over, and the time to devise a considered response to terrorism has arrived.”

Staff writer Amanda Harris contributed to this story.

-- K (infosurf@yahoo.com), October 14, 2001

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