Easy Access: U.S. Immigration Policy
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JEFFREY KAYE: At least 16 of the 19 hijackers who carried out the September 11 terrorist attacks didn’t sneak their way into the United States. They arrived with the full permission and knowledge of the U.S. Government…
SPOKESMAN: And what brings you here to the United States?
JEFFREY KAYE: Traveling on American visas like millions of other foreign tourists, business people and students. Khalid Al-Midhar had a business visa, according to the FBI. Marwan Aal-Shehhi, was reportedly here on a tourist visa. And Hani Hanjour had a student visa, but never showed up for classes. Critics say the terrorists’ ability to get into the country legally underscores a welter of problems plaguing the U.S.’ visa system, problems which begin in America’s more than 200 embassies and consulates abroad.
JOHN MALLOT: Our visa officers overseas need help. They work in the most stressful conditions of any of our diplomats overseas in terms of the workload that they have to bear and the lack of resources that they have.
JEFFREY KAYE: John Mallot is a 30-year veteran of the American Foreign Service and a former ambassador to Malaysia. He says consular officials often do not have the information they need to determine who should be allowed into the U.S.
JOHN MALLOT: Anyone who applies for an American visa has a name check run on them through a computerized system, but if your name is not in the system or if you are using someone else’s identity, you’re going to get through that look-out process with respect to a terrorist connection or even a narcotics connection or an international crime connection.
JEFFREY KAYE: In fact, says Mallot, U.S. embassies and consulates often don’t have access to the information that other branches of the government have.
JOHN MALLOT: The Immigration Service database is not the same as the State Department’s. The law enforcement agencies is not the same database either, in some cases especially with respect to people with a possible terrorist or a narcotics connection.
JEFFREY KAYE: So at the consular level you obviously have access to the State Department’s database.
JOHN MALLOT: Yes.
JEFFREY KAYE: Do you have access to the FBI’s database?
JOHN MALLOT: In some cases only if the FBI notifies the State Department or if the CIA notifies the State Department or DEA notifies the State Department that this is a name that you should enter into your system — meaning the State Department’s system.
JEFFREY KAYE: But in general, you don’t have a list of all the names that you should have.
JOHN MALLOT: No, no, no.
JEFFREY KAYE: If you’re going to run….
JOHN MALLOT: No.
JEFFREY KAYE: Every year more than seven million foreign nationals with visas arrive at U.S. ports of entry. Once here, next to nothing is done to monitor their activities or movements. That’s a state of affairs that angers critics of U.S. immigration policy, such as Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
IRA MEHLMAN: Once people are here, they simply disappear into American society. We have no idea whether the people that we admit are doing what they intended to do once they get here, and whether they even leave the country when they are supposed to. And so it is all a big mystery to us once people get into the United States, what they’re doing, and if they ever leave.
JEFFREY KAYE: Not everyone even needs a visa to enter the U.S. Citizens of 29 countries, most of them in Western Europe, aren’t required to have visitors visas. Past efforts to tighten visa procedures were often blocked. Industry groups concerned about international commerce fought tighter regulations on business visas. Universities raised concerns about burdensome reporting requirements on foreign students. Now, with calls growing for a reform of the visa system, the quarter of a million foreign students studying at America’s colleges and universities could be the first affected. Members of Congress advocate better tracking of foreign students and their families, and even a moratorium on new student visas. But such a crackdown focused on foreign students is unfair, says Santiago Kow, President of the University of Southern California’s International Student Assembly.
SANTIAGO KOW: Only 1.6% of all non-immigrant visas are student visas. So why are we only targeting students? Why can’t we have the same control and the same moratorium imposed on business, on others sectors? Why are we only targeting the normally, typically harmless students?
JEFFREY KAYE: Beyond toughening the student visa system, some immigration reform advocates want the government to keep better tabs on foreign visitors. They would like resident aliens to register annually with U.S. authorities, and to report to the Immigration Service, the INS, when they leave the country. But many immigration experts say none of the reforms now under consideration would have prevented the attacks of September 11. When the hijackers applied for their visas, U.S. authorities were unaware of their terrorist connections. Neils Frenzen is professor of immigration law.
NEILS FRENZEN: If the individual doesn’t have any history, doesn’t have a criminal or terrorist or intelligence background, or that information is not known to the U.S. Government, changing the visa laws is not going to help with identifying who should not be admitted into the United States. The only thing we can do is stop issuing visas and seal the borders, not allow anyone to come into the United States.
JEFFREY KAYE: Frenzen also worries that calls to better monitor foreign visitors could collide with the civil liberties of Americans.
NEILS FRENZEN: How are we going to find the Japanese businessman or the Canadian businessman or the Finnish tourist when they overstay their visa? And frankly– and are we ready for this– the only way we are going to be able to do that is by having a system of checkpoints and identity cards in the United States where law enforcement officials have the authority to ask people, “who are you? Produce some identification, and let me see if you are legally here.”
JEFFREY KAYE: Since September 11, immigration officials have stepped up port-of-entry inspections. But precautions are not foolproof. Last year, the National Commission on Terrorism issued a sobering warning. “The United States is de facto a country of open borders,” it reported. And it said, “the massive flows of people across U.S. borders make exclusion of all foreign terrorists impossible.”