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Tighter US Immigration Controls After Sept. 11 Attacks

The U.S. war on terrorism after the 9/11 terrorist attacks has included more than just military interventions in Afghanistan. The U.S. government also has tightened immigration controls to weed out terrorist suspects trying to enter the country or already in the United States.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft did not mince words last year when announcing new restrictions on immigrants. America, he said, will not allow terrorists to use U.S. hospitality as a weapon against us.

"Let the terrorists among us be warned. If you overstay your visa by one day we will arrest you," he said. "If you violate a local law, we will hope you will (be put in jail) and will work to make sure you are put in jail and kept in custody as long as possible. We will use all our weapons within our law and under the constitution to protect life and enhance security for Americans."

A month after the attacks, Congress passed the U.S. Patriot Act, which gives sweeping powers to both domestic law enforcement and international intelligence agencies to combat terrorism. Congress also approved tighter immigration controls as a key element in that campaign.

New rules have imposed tighter border controls, better screening of visa applicants and closer tracking of non-immigrant visa holders in the United States, especially foreign students. The initial probe into the 9/11 attacks revealed that 15 of the 19 terrorists had entered the country on non-immigrant visas.

The new measures have received mixed reviews.

Researcher Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies welcomes more curbs on visas and more resources enforcing immigration laws. The Center has long complained that lax enforcement breeds abuse.

"Skepticism should be the guiding principle of visa issuance. Top priority must be given to the protection of the American people and not the feelings of the visa applicant," he said.

New rules will also require the fingerprinting of visitors from countries on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist sponsoring nations, including Syria, Iran, Iraq and Libya.

The increased focus on security, however, has also raised alarms in the immigrant community and complaints of racial profiling.

Pennsylvania State University Law Professor Victor Romero raises concerns about the potential abuse of immigrants' civil rights.

"Most specifically, I'm concerned about the secret immigration hearings, the prolonged detentions of immigrants for supposed immigration violations without much access to counsel or notice of charges that are pending against them," he said.

Immigration lawyer Jeanne Butterfield agrees there is a need for a better balance between security and immigrants' rights. Ms. Butterfield helps run the Washington-based Immigration Lawyers Association.

She warns against turning innocent immigrants into scapegoats.

"Certainly we need as a nation to do something to make ourselves more secure. And, the terrible attacks last September were a big wake-up call. But I think it's a mistake to blame immigrants for the acts of some individuals who are terrorists," she said.

The U.S. Congress has also demanded an overhaul of the Immigration and Naturalization Services to streamline its operations and beef up the resources needed to better enforce immigration laws.

Part of VOA's series on the September 11 terror attacks.