Immigration reform, which had surged toward the top of the nation’s political agenda, will apparently be delayed until next year in deference to Hurricane Katrina, leaving critics of current policy concerned that the nation’s borders will remain open to potential terrorists.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee that is charged with addressing the issue, has indicated that the job of rebuilding the Gulf Coast and providing assistance for victims of the disaster likely will force the postponement of legislative action on a number of fronts, including immigration.
Majority Republicans have not reached a consensus on how to handle the vexing immigration issue and time is running out on this year’s congressional calendar, meaning comprehensive action will likely wait until 2006.
That has set off warning signals among immigration-reform advocates who fear the present patchwork system leaves the United States vulnerable to a new round of terrorist attacks. Porous borders, they maintain, provide those looking to do the nation harm an opportunity to enter with little interference.
Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said the “concern over the security consequences of immigration appears to have dissipated quite significantly” since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which produced an urgency to regulate who enters the country and who is kept out.
“The White House doesn’t really seem to know what it wants to do on immigration, but there doesn’t seem to be any indication that they’re all that serious about approaching the security consequences or security aspects of immigration,” he said.
In a report this month, Janice Kephart, former counsel to the 9/11 Commission, found “widespread terrorist violations of immigration laws,” asserting that of 94 accused terrorists who operated in the United States from the early 1990s to 2004, 59 allegedly committed immigration fraud before participating in terrorist activities. Several were guilty of multiple immigration violations.
The information, Kephart said, “highlights the danger of our lax immigration system, not just in terms of who is allowed in but also how terrorists, once in the country, used weaknesses in the system to remain here.” Strict enforcement of immigration law, she said, “must be an integral part of our efforts to prevent future attacks on U.S. soil.”
The level of fraud perpetrated by suspected terrorists, Kephart said, ranges from the relatively minor failure to disclose information on an immigration form to the alteration or fabrication of passports and other travel documents.
Steve Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, recently cited the case of Mahmud Abouhalima, an Egyptian who entered the United States in the mid-1980s and overstayed his student visa. Abouhalima was granted amnesty under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 by claiming he was an agricultural worker. He was actually working as a New York cab driver at the time, losing his license on at least 10 different occasions for failing to appear in traffic court.
After receiving his green card in 1990, Abouhalima made several trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan where he received terrorist training, which he put to use in the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.
One of his allies in that 1993 bombing was Mohammed Salameh, who rented the truck that held the bomb that caused extensive damage to lower Manhattan. Salameh also sought amnesty under the 1986 law but was rejected. That didn’t stop him from remaining in the United States.
“So see, there you could say, ‘Well, the system did its job,’ ” Camarota said. “But the problem was because, then as now, people denied a green card are not made to leave the country. He simply stayed on and continued to work and live in the U.S. illegally. And then he, of course, rented the truck that they used in the ’93 attack.”
Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, another advocacy group, said current laws leave the United States no better prepared to confront another terrorist attack than in facing up to Hurricane Katrina.
“Unless we take immediate steps to address the threat posed by our chaotic immigration policies and failed enforcement efforts, we are almost certain to face another catastrophic attack in the near future,” Stein said.
It’s impossible, he said, for the United States to simultaneously maintain open borders and homeland security. While the Border Patrol apprehends more than 1 million illegal entrants a year, and the Coast Guard captures thousands more, hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens enter the country every year. While most enter looking for work or to reunite with family members, Stein said the United States can’t expect to deny entry to international terrorists if it doesn’t maintain control over its borders.
“We cannot have upwards of 11 million people living here illegally, with no threat of detection and removal, and hope to spot terrorists who live in their midst,” he said. “Above all, we cannot rely on luck or providence to avoid tragedy. This nation now understands the consequences of ignoring warnings and neglecting its basic defenses.”
Implementing comprehensive immigration reform and enforcing the law, he said, is “the equivalent of shoring up the levees.”
“When the next terrorist attack occurs, will there be anyone who will not wish we had shored up our immigration laws and enforcement?” he asked.
Several bills are pending in Congress. The one receiving the most attention is a bipartisan proposal by Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz. It would require new visas and immigration documents to be biometric, machine-readable and tamper-resistant. It also would create a database listing all aliens who hold jobs in the United States.
A competing bill by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Jon Kyle, R-Ariz., centers on enforcement, adding 1,250 customs and border-protection officers and 10,000 Border Patrol agents. It also sets aside funds for the expedited removal of illegals and calls for machine-readable, tamper-proof, biometric work visas.
(Contact Bill Straub at StraubB(at)shns.com)