Skip to comments.How Have Terrorists Entered the U.S.? [Immigration problems]
Posted on 05/28/2002 5:23:03 PM PDT by xsysmgr
Contact: Steven A. Camarota (202) 466-8185
WASHINGTON A new study from the Center for Immigration Studies examines how foreign terrorists entered and remained in the country over the past decade. To provide a more complete picture of the threat, the report examines the immigration status not only of the September 11 hijackers but of all 48 foreign-born, radical Muslim terrorists, almost all of them linked to al Qaeda, who have been charged, convicted, or admitted involvement in terrorism in the United States since 1993.
The report, entitled "The Open Door: How Militant Islamic Terrorists Entered and Remained in the United States, 1993-2001," by the Center's Director of Research Steven A. Camarota, contains immigration histories for each of the 48 terrorists. Contrary to claims that foreign terrorists have come only as temporary visitors, research indicates that they have manipulated almost every possible means of admission to the United States: Some have indeed come as students, tourists, and business travelers; others, however, have been Lawful Permanent Residents and naturalized U.S. citizens; while yet others have snuck across the border, arrived as stowaways on ships, used false passports, been granted amnesty, or been applicants for asylum.
The report is on line at www.cis.org/articles/2002/terrorism.html [ .pdf version].
Among the findings:
* At the time they committed their crimes: 16 (one-third) of the 48 terrorists were on temporary visas (primarily tourists); 17 (another third) were Lawful Permanent Residents or naturalized U.S. citizens; 12 (one-fourth) were illegal aliens; 3 of the 48 had applications for asylum pending.
* Violations of immigration laws are very common among terrorists. Not only were 12 of the 48 terrorists illegal aliens when they committed their crimes, but at least nine others had significant violations of immigration law prior to taking part in terrorism.
"Because every part of our immigration system has been exploited by terrorists, we cannot reform just one area, but must address the problems that exist throughout," said Camarota. "The solution is not to single out Middle Easterners for exclusion or selective enforcement. Instead we need to more carefully check the backgrounds of all visa applicants, better police the borders, strictly enforce the law within the country, and, most important, reduce the level of immigration to give the INS the breathing space it needs to implement fundamental reforms."
* Past amnesties for illegal aliens have facilitated terrorism. Mahmud Abouhalima, a leader of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, was legalized as a seasonal agricultural worker as part of the 1986 amnesty, which allowed him to travel abroad, including several trips to Afghanistan, where he received terrorist training.
* Several terrorists should probably have been denied temporary visas, because they had characteristics that made it likely they would overstay and live in the U.S. illegally. Under Section 214(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, individuals who are young, unmarried, unemployed, or lack strong attachment to a residence overseas are to be denied temporary visas. Several of the September 11th hijackers, including Mohammed Atta, fit these criteria.
* Although the September 11th hijackers entered on temporary visas, legal immigrants and naturalized U.S. citizens have also played key roles in terrorism on U.S. soil. For example, Siddig Ibrahim Siddig Ali, ringleader of the plot to bomb New York City landmarks in 1993, is an LPR, and Ali Mohammed, who wrote al Qaeda's terrorist handbook, is a naturalized U.S. citizen.
* In addition to overstaying visas, terrorists have engaged in fraudulent marriages to American citizens, such as Khalid Abu al Dahab, who raised money and helped recruit new members for al Qaeda. Others have provided false information on their applications for green cards, like Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman. And at least eight terrorists held jobs illegally.
POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS: While no security can be foolproof, if only some of those involved in a terrorist plot can be stopped by our immigration system, then it is possible that whatever conspiracy they are involved in will unravel, as was the case with the Millennium plot. Four general reforms are needed. First, improvements in how visas are processed overseas are needed, including more vigorous background checks and interviews for all visa applicants. Second, the fact that terrorists often flout the law means that strict enforcement of immigration law within the United States could reduce the terrorist threat. Third, there needs to be a significant increase in efforts to police the borders. Improving visa processing while leaving the borders largely undefended is an invitation for terrorists to do as attempted Brooklyn subway bomber Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer did; having been denied a visa, he simply went to Canada and snuck across the border.
The fourth reform that is needed is a reduction in overall immigration, both temporary and permanent. Given limited governmental resources, issuing fewer visas would mean that greater resources could be devoted to background checks on each applicant. It would also mean fewer people to keep track of within the country. Most important, it would give the State Department and Immigration and Naturalization Service the breathing space they need to deal with enormous processing backlogs, now close to 5 million applications, and allow them to undertake necessary reforms. It is simply not reasonable to expect any agency, and especially the INS, to deal with such huge backlogs and take on steadily proliferating responsibilities and at the same time fundamentally restructure itself.
The Center for Immigration Studies is a non-profit, non-partisan research organization that examines and critiques the impact of immigration on the United States. It is not affiliated with any group.
In the years prior to the attacks of 9/11, the immigration debate primarily focused on the economic, fiscal, demographic, and cultural impact of the unprecedented level of immigration the United States has experienced in recent decades. While these issues will continue to be important, terrorism has now been added to the debate. There remains much disagreement on the costs and benefits of immigration and on what reforms are desirable; however, almost all observers now agree that more has to be done to keep foreign-born terrorists out of the country or to apprehend them once they have gotten into the country.
Prior to 9/11, the nation may have been willing to tolerate a lax immigration system. Today, policymakers and the public are increasingly aware that such a system creates enormous risks. While it will take time and money to address these problems, reforming immigration is as important to protecting the nation from foreign terrorists as are military operations, intelligence gathering, or diplomatic initiatives. The fact that so many terrorists have violated immigration laws means enforcing the laws is one of the best tools we have for preventing terrorism.
In addition to the eclectic nature of the threat and the fundamental problems in the immigration system, there is also strong evidence that national security is being jeopardized by the current high level of immigration. The fact that the State Department visa-processing system and the INS are completely overwhelmed by the number of people allowed into the country legally on a temporary and permanent basis is not really in dispute. Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Mary Ryan has said that consular officers are stretched so thin that they cannot do their jobs, and the General Accounting Office concluded in January of this year that the INS is so overwhelmed that providing immigration benefits (green cards, change of status, etc.) to all who are entitled to them conflicts with the goal of preserving the integrity of the process. It is simply not possible to have this level of immigration and protect the country at the same time.
Almost all observers agree that the attacks of 9/11 are not the end; militant Islamic terrorists will continue to target America. The overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the death or capture of Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants, while certainly welcome, will not end the threat. The culture, freedoms, wealth, influence, foreign policy, and predominant religion of the United States make it a target for Islamic extremists. Because none of these things is likely to change in a way that would satisfy bin Laden and those who share his ideology, the only option for the United States is to restructure and reform its entire immigration system.
Greater scrutiny of visa applicants, closer tracking of the foreign citizens we allow the country, and enforcing immigration laws, coupled with a reduction in immigration that would make this possible, are exactly the kind of reasonable reform that would enhance security without infringing on the rights of Americans. We face a clear choice as a nation: We can continue to admit huge numbers of temporary visitors and permanent immigrants and as a result have an easily penetrated immigration system or we can reduce immigration to a more manageable level that will make fundamental reforms possible. Some may worry that reducing immigration will harm the nations economy, but the evidence indicates otherwise. In 1997 the National Academy of Science assembled most of the top immigration economists and issued a voluminous report entitled The New Americans: Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects of Immigration. The report shows that the economic benefits from immigration are almost certainly very small and are, in fact, entirely outweighed by the costs immigrant families impose on public coffers. The nations leading immigration economist, George Borjas of Harvard University, comes to much the same conclusion in his recent book Heavens Door: Immigration Policy and the American Economy. We can reduce immigration secure in the knowledge that it will not harm our economy. Whatever one might have thought about immigration prior to 9/11, the status quo is clearly no longer acceptable. If we fail to make the necessary changes, then we will be exposing our country to risks that could have been greatly reduced.
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