Fortress America

America has long welcomed newcomers from foreign lands--Middle Eastern refugees, Latin American job seekers, Canadian shoppers, Asian students or European tourists who want to try a Budweiser beer and watch a Broadway show. They come to take advantage of the country's largesse--its political, financial and social opportunities--and they come in very large numbers. Last year the United States issued 7 million visas to foreigners--but that's only a fraction of the estimated 500 million people who enter and leave the United States every year.

Given such a vast number of visitors, it's perhaps not surprising that the Immigration and Naturalization Service focuses much of its attention on simply moving people through the doors. INS inspectors, for example, are required to vet all passengers on international flights within 45 minutes of arrival (an efficiency they don't always achieve). Many visitors do not need visas at all: they're from friendly countries, members of a 29-nation Visa Waiver Program, and can virtually come and go as they please, breezing through checkpoints with a passport and a smile.

But America's complacent attitude has now changed. The Arab terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon exploited gaping security holes in the U.S. immigration system, and Washington is now taking steps to patch them up. Since the disaster, Immigration, Customs and Border authorities have been on a state of high alert at America's 301 ports of entry--airports, seaports and land crossings. Passengers arriving on the shores of liberty are now greeted by National Guard troops bearing rifles and meticulous baggage inspectors wearing surgical gloves. Delays of three hours are common at some border crossings in Mexico and Canada. Foreigners who want to take up residence in the United States--from students and tech workers to bedraggled refugees--find themselves asking the question that never would have occurred to them before September 11: is the United States closing its gates?

No, says President George W. Bush. But while the U.S. gates will stay open to the world, that opening won't be quite as wide. Last week Bush ordered consular offices to tighten their scrutiny of all visa applicants. "We welcome legal immigrants," Bush said, "but we don't welcome people who come to hurt Americans." He added that the nearly 565,000 foreign students in America would be more closely monitored. In addition to Bush's visa crackdown, even tougher security measures could be in the congressional pipeline--among them the use of biometric data (such as fingerprints, digital photos and eye scans) on immigration and visitor documents.

America, a nation of immigrants, prides itself on its ethnic diversity and its magnetic attraction to those looking for a better life. But as Jim Zogby, head of the Arab-American Institute, says, "The bastards who took advantage of American freedoms to murder Americans have done grave damage [to that ideal]." Adds Dan Stein, director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform and a staunch critic of U.S. immigration policy: "This attack has shaken the traditional mythology of American immigration to its core. America's long-term strategy of allowing people to re-create an identity here, like in the old West, has come back to haunt us."

The implications of a tighter U.S. immigration policy could be significant. Already, a proposed bilateral agreement between Mexico and the United States, which would expand a guest-worker program between the two countries and perhaps legalize the status of 3.5 million illegal Mexican workers living in America, has been shoved to the diplomatic back burner. America relies heavily on foreign visitors and workers, as well as cross-border commercial traffic, to stoke the economy. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is predicated on the easy flow of goods from Canada and Mexico into the United States and back. U.S. high-tech firms depend on foreign-born engineers and programmers to hatch new products and services; manufacturers (meatpackers, food-processing companies) and farmers rely on seasonal migrants for cheap labor; U.S. universities count on foreign students to fill their classrooms--and coffers. In California alone, overseas students contribute $1.6 billion to college revenues.

In 1996, as part of a sweeping immigration-reform package, Congress ordered the INS to start an automated entry-exit system at all U.S. ports of entry. But U.S. business interests and Northern congressmen, along with the government of Canada, aggressively fought the provision, complaining that it would create major delays at border crossings and thus hurt businesses. The massive project has been seriously delayed.

No new immigration laws have yet been passed, but the new antiterrorism bill has implications for visitors and immigrants. For one thing, U. S. lawmakers have tripled the number of security agents along America's nearly 9,000-kilometer-long border with Canada. That law also broadens the detention powers of the police. Anyone suspected of supporting alleged terrorists can be arrested and held indefinitely. Civil libertarians worry that nonthreatening aliens will be caught up in antiterrorist sweeps.

Even before September 11, U.S. consulates turned down almost a third of all visa applications--mostly when the petitioner was deemed a risk to remain permanently in America. Citizens of countries with suspected terrorist ties (such as Syria, Iran and Iraq) have long faced tough scrutiny. But now the bar has been raised even higher--especially in countries with large Muslim populations. Pakistani academics claim that students hoping to start school in America next year are having a rough time getting B-1 (student) visas from the U.S. Consulate.

In the past, anyone with a college admission letter and the right INS form was almost assured of getting a visa. No longer. Under new rules, if a consular officer has reason to suspect anything about the applicant's past, character or political affiliations, the student's visa request will be denied. Christopher Lamora, a State Department spokesman, says, "Our visa standards are set by the law, and consular officials are still abiding by the law--it hasn't changed." That said, "We are being more cautious and doing everything we can to make correct decisions. We've instructed [all embassies and consulates] to look at their visa-approval process and ask how it can be strengthened. We're trying to get as much new intelligence information as we can, and based on that, somebody who might have gotten a visa in the past may not get one now." Upshot: terrorist and criminal watch lists are being expanded, and fewer visas may be issued.

Congressional leaders in America vow to go even further to close security loopholes. Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri has proposed a 30-day waiting period in all countries for U.S. visa applications to ensure that embassy officials can perform thorough background checks. He and others also want the United States to issue tamperproof visas containing biometric data, such as facial screens or thumbprints, to prevent impostors from gaining entry. In fact, the INS aims to do just that. Sens. Edward Kennedy and Sam Brownback have introduced a bill that would broadly strengthen immigration laws. Among the proposals: a requirement that all international airlines submit their lists of America-bound passengers to the United States before or during boarding. (Many already do so.) Kennedy, Brownback and other lawmakers also want the INS to move ahead with two major technology initiatives--the automated entry-exit system at border crossings and a Student Exchange Visitor Information System, also known as SEVIS, an Internet-based system that will make it easier for universities to monitor their foreign students more closely.

Schools will be required to notify the government when foreign students fail to show up, change their addresses, take reduced course loads or drop out of school. Right now, says Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, "there is little scrutiny given to those who claim to be foreign persons seeking to study in the United States." According to her office, over the last decade the U.S. government has issued 16,000 visas to students from states that are believed to sponsor terrorism--Iran, Syria, Iraq and Sudan. Jonah Alexander, a fellow at the Potomac Institute and author of books on terrorism, says the new scrutiny is needed. He claims that Osama bin Laden's network funds some students who enter America to study chemical engineering and nuclear physics. SEVIS, like the automated entry-exit system, was mandated by the 1996 immigration-reform bill. But universities didn't like the idea, and its implementation has been delayed.

Everyone agrees that there must be more intelligence sharing among U.S. security agencies and the INS--a key issue. The State Department, INS and FBI all have their own terrorist or criminal watch lists, containing millions of names, but the databases are not always closely linked. The State Department complains bitterly that the FBI won't share its national criminal database with its consular officers. And lawbreakers caught by the INS may not be brought to the attention of embassies; as a consequence, foreigners expelled for visa violations can often easily get a new visa overseas. Says a spokesman for Rep. George Gekas of Pennsylvania, chairman of the House subcommittee on immigration: "Everybody agrees that there are problems and they need to be fixed."

INS critics say that the agency itself must be reorganized. House Judiciary Committee chairman F. James Sensenbrenner last week called the agency "dysfunctional." He wants to abolish the INS and create a new and more efficient bureaucracy. James Ziglar, the new INS chief, has acknowledged that changes are needed. "The structure of the [INS], and the management systems we have in place, are outdated and in many respects inadequate for the challenges we face," said Ziglar last month in startling congressional testimony. One example: in the age of computers, the United States really doesn't know when foreigners leave the country. Unlike in many countries, visas are not stamped at the exit doors, so the INS doesn't know who has overstayed his welcome--a violation of law--and who hasn't. The country still accepts paper visitor cards with entry and exit dates--and it can take weeks or even months before that information is plugged into a database. What's more, former INS commissioner Doris Meissner told NEWSWEEK, "we have pretty much given up on" trying to find illegal aliens in the United States--estimated at upwards of 10 million--unless they've broken a law. Reason: there isn't enough manpower to track them down.

The Arab terrorists exploited such lax oversight. Had SEVIS been in operation, the INS would have known when Hani Hanjour broke the law. In late 2000, Hanjour entered the United States on a student visa to learn English at a school in Oakland, California. But he never showed up at the school. When next heard of, Hanjour was at the controls of American Airlines Flight 77 when it struck the Pentagon.

Mohamed Atta also broke U.S. law long before he flew a plane into the World Trade Center. The 33-year-old Egyptian arrived in Miami on Jan. 10 claiming that he wanted to take flying lessons. But he carried only a tourist visa, not the required vocational-training visa. And he had violated another U.S. immigration law--overstaying his previous visa by more than a month. Either infraction was sufficient to deny him entry--but Atta slipped through the cracks. Because of the record-keeping problem, Miami inspectors were unaware of Atta's visa-overstay violation. So when he convinced the inspectors of his good intentions--he said he had applied for but not yet received his vocational visa--he was allowed to stroll back into the United States.

That's not all. In late 2000 and early 2001, two members of Atta's Hamburg, Germany, terrorist cell applied for U.S. visas at the consulate in that city. Like Atta, both had been admitted to a U.S. flight school. But both men--a Yemeni national named Ramzi Binalshibh and a Moroccan named Zakariya Essabar--had their visa applications denied. Essabar was turned down twice.

How then did Atta get a visa? A State Department spokesman will say only that, at the time, Atta qualified for one and the others didn't. Experts say screening Arab nationals alone won't be sufficient to deter terrorism. Many terrorists have German, French or other European citizenship. In fact, one of Al Qaeda's key strategies is said to be moving operatives into a foreign country to gain citizenship--usually by marrying a local woman.

The vast majority of prospective U.S. visitors--business people, tourists and most students and temporary workers--shouldn't worry: they'll have no trouble getting in so long as their documentation is valid and they're prepared for possible delays. Still, many people are nervous. Some students and temporary foreign workers, who typically receive H1-B visas for three years, are fearful that if they leave the country, they could face trouble returning.

A 46-year-old Yemeni native, who lives in Cleveland and is a U.S. citizen, says he's been waiting for three years to get his wife and children into the United States. But in the current climate of fear, he tells NEWSWEEK, he expects even more delays. "What if U.S. [consular] officials talk to my family and think that they're bad?" he asks. "Lately, I think everybody looks at us [Arabs] and all they see are criminals. The attacks brought a new antiterrorism law, and the new law brings rumors. Everybody is scared because no one knows what will happen."

Immigration proponents fear that many of the security ideas now being floated--especially those that require more tracking of visitors--won't do much to stop terrorism. They note that while the INS budget increased enormously during the 1990s, and while lots more technology and manpower was thrown at the Mexican border, some 200,000 people still sneak across the Rio Grande every year. "Building a Fortress America will not work," says Kathleen Newland, co-director of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. "It will be incredibly expensive, disrupt commerce and infringe civil liberties. If we tighten our visa system, terrorists will resort to more cases of identity theft. It would be dangerous to believe that broad-brush immigration moves will make us safer." Better, she says, to invest more money in intelligence gathering. "We should pay more attention to suspicious patterns of behavior, such as buying a one-way, first-class plane ticket with cash. I assume that is now a security trigger."

Ben Johnson, an associate director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, worries that nonthreatening illegal aliens could be abused in the zeal to capture terrorists. He asserts that an undocumented alien could be arrested on a minor immigration charge, certified as a suspected terrorist and held indefinitely, with little ability to prove he's not dangerous. "The idea that you can detain somebody for long periods of time without letting them contest whether they are a terrorist or not seems to run contrary to normal due-process protections we have in the United States," he says. "We have to be cautious about false solutions. We don't want to waste resources on little old ladies from England who've missed their planes."

That is true. But critics like Stein of the Federation for American Immigration Reform counter that "a culture of illegality" is now endemic to modern immigration. And unless screws are tightened, it will remain easy for terrorists to slip in. Stein notes that some of the terrorists obtained U.S. driver's licenses with the help of Salvadorans who were themselves illegal aliens.

How will all this shake out? American immigration policy certainly won't become Orwellian; the country is too big, mobile and dependent on foreign visitors to become a menacing Big Brother. But it will become more vigilant.

In the future, immigrants and temporary visitors will be required to produce more information about themselves and their backgrounds--including fingerprints and other physical characteristics--and it will be included on more sophisticated and secure documents, including visas, passports, work-authorization and permanent-resident (green) cards. More people applying for visas will be interviewed directly by consular officials.

At the borders, INS agents conducted 50 million physical inspections of visitors last year. There will be more from now on. Says the Arab-American Institute's Zogby: "I hope this terrorist act won't end up punishing worthy and deserving students, families that want to be reunited, people wanting and seeking freedom." Some deserving people may be kept out, but so might a few dangerous terrorists. It's the price visitors and Americans must pay for a safer country.