For centuries, people from all over the world have flocked to America in search of opportunity, prosperity, and freedom from governments that punish individuals for their religious or political beliefs.
But September 11 changed the relationship between foreigners and the usually immigrant-friendly United States.
In response to the deadly terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, U.S. officials want to be more careful about who they allow into the country and why.
Response to 9.11
Of the 19 hijackers held responsible for the terrorist attacks, at least nine were in the country on valid tourist or student visas, which are legal permits issued by the government so foreigners can visit the U.S. for travel or study. Three others had entered the country legally but then stayed beyond their visas' expiration.
State department officials aren't sure how the other six hijackers entered the United States, which critics point to as proof the immigration system is flawed.
The most drastic measure taken in response to the terrorist attacks was to give Attorney General John Ashcroft, the head of the Justice Department, almost unlimited powers to ensure the security of the country.
When President Bush signed the USA Patriot Act on October 26, he gave Ashcroft many more powers to find, detain and prosecute foreigners he suspects of having ties to terrorism.
According to the Patriot Act, the Attorney General can arrest a foreigner if he has a "reasonable ground to believe that a non-citizen is either engaged in terrorist activity or other activity that endangers the national security." That non-citizen has no right to see the evidence against him, and can be jailed for seven days before being charged with any crime.
The immigration system
According to the year 2000 census, there are about 31 million foreign-born people in the United States. That means that approximately one out of every ten people in the U.S. is an immigrant.
Who are these immigrants? They could be your parents, your grandparents, your teacher, your bus driver, your grocery clerk, or your doctor.
Since millions of people around the world want to live and work in the United States, the immigration system used by the federal government is often overwhelmed by the number of applications.
A major problem for the immigration system is that the governmental organization responsible for visa applications, called the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), is understaffed. To give INS workers enough time to carefully review foreign applications, the government has suspended the admission of foreign refugees.
Another problem with the immigration system lies in the inability to know if people on expired visas are still in the country. In fact, immigration officials can't track whether people on temporary visas leave the United States at all.
The result is that thousands of people enter the United States with legal or illegal documents and the government is not able to screen their backgrounds for dangerous activity or keep track of them once they are here.
Many people believe if a better immigration system was in place, many of the September 11 hijackers would not have been able to complete their deadly task and future terrorists won't be able to cause additional destruction.
While everyone in the United States wants to keep out people who threaten the nation's security, many people are concerned that the stricter immigration policies will discourage people from coming to the United States.
Specifically, international students may think twice before applying to college in the United States because they won't want to deal with the hassles of increased security or lack of privacy.
For decades, the United States has been the first place international students want to go to study, but now students are seeing that their skills may be more appreciated elsewhere.
Germany and France, for example, are actively recruiting international students to attend their schools. The United States, meanwhile, has imposed a 20-day waiting period on students visas for applicants in "troubled countries."
While the United States remains the country with the largest international student population (there were 547,867 foreign students enrolled for the 2000-01 academic year), its dominance over other countries is slipping.
This decrease in international students could have negative effects on American schools and on society as a whole. Many of the brightest students abroad work hard to be accepted by American schools, and often help raise the standards of American learning institutions.
In addition, international students must pay full tuition at American universities, pumping billions of dollars into the U.S. economy each year. Some fear a decrease in international student admissions would mean the United States would lose a great deal of money and some of its brightest students.
Will all this work?
The U.S. government is trying to strike a delicate balance between maintaining the diversity of the United States and ensuring the security of a country devastated by terrorism.
Many people fear that the new security measures will violate the rights of non-citizens and discourage people from immigrating to the United States. This change would threaten the values of freedom and acceptance on which the country was founded.
Others worry that relaxed immigration and security measures in the name of diversity and liberty could lead to another attack like the one on September 11.
What do you think? Should the U.S. government restrict why foreigners enter the country and what they do while they are here?
Story contributed by Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz
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