Since September 11, 2001, U.S. immigration policies which allowed the terrorists who attacked that day to enter the country on temporary visas have been the subject of much scrutiny and debate. Meredith Sumpter of VOA's New American Voices spoke with representatives of two non-profit organizations that deal with immigrant issues about how the terror attacks have affected immigration policy in the United States.
Over one million people immigrate to the United States every year. According to the latest census, nearly 10 percent of the population of the country is foreign born. About one-third of the foreign-born have arrived since 1990.
John Keeley, research associate with the Center for Immigration Studies, an organization that seeks to limit the number of immigrants entering this country, says that the threat of future terrorist attacks adds urgency to the need for reforming U.S. immigration policy.
"We do have an immigration policy, and one that in my judgment is remarkably dysfunctional and one that plays a key role in rendering us vulnerable from a national security perspective. And on that front the American people, both native and foreign born, are indicating a heightened concern over immigration policy and a concern for our safety. I don't think immigrants in the United States are any less concerned. We all want a safe America and a prosperous America," Mr. Keeley said.
He welcomes some of the measures passed by Congress in the past year, believing they will help regulate immigration - to some degree.
"They include the implementation of a computerized entry-exit system at our ports of entry here, land, air and sea," said Mr. Keeley. "At a time when the pourous nature of our borders is sharply in relief for all Americans, the ability to identify and track hundred of millions of border crossings into this country each year is, I think, a fundamental tool that our government has to have."
Additionally, says John Keeley, the government now has the ability to deny temporary visas to applicants from countries the State Department has identified as being sponsors of terrorism.
"This would include Sudan, and Libya, and Syria, and Iraq and Iran. That I don't think is surprising. I don't see why the United States and its people ought to be affording admission to individuals whose governments formally sanction terrorism," he said.
Angela Kelley, deputy director of the pro-immigrant National Immigration Forum, says that despite these measures, immigration policy remains basically what it was a year ago.
"Our immigration policy is based on family reunification, so if you have a certain family relationship you can come to the U.S. legally and reside here permanently. That's not changed," she said. "We've not changed the numbers, we've not changed the qualifications. Our immigration policies are also based on employers that have jobs where they need foreign workers. That, too, has not changed, neither the numbers or the categories. And also on bringing in refugees, people who are fleeing persecution. The law on that has not changed, but the process of refugees coming to the U.S. has changed. It has dramatically slowed down to a trickle," said Ms. Kelley.
Angela Kelley believes that Congress acted responsibly in passing the Border and Visa Security Act earlier this year.
"What that does is add layers of security before people even come to this country by making sure that those who are evaluating visa applications are trained, that they're not just looking for people who might overstay their visas, that they're also looking for potential terrorists, that we get cooperation from airlines and know who's getting on an airplane. The legislation that Congress passed requires that people go through a pre-clearance or pre-inspection station before they come to the U.S.," Ms. Kelley said.
Both John Keeley and Angela Kelley say that the effectiveness of our immigration policy ultimately depends on the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which is charged with implementing immigration laws and administering the immigration process. Both agree that this agency is overburdened, under-resourced and problem-plagued. The Bush administration has proposed incorporating the INS into a huge new Department of Homeland Security. Although concerned that this somehow identifies all immigrants as a potential terrorist threat, Mrs. Kelley believes the reorganization could benefit the beleaguered agency, if in the process it were to be fundamentally reformed. "If we have an agency that is restructured, if we have an agency with a director that reports to the Secretary of Homeland Security, an agency that is about providing service as much as about enforcing the laws, I think that fundamentally this country can be both a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws," she said.
John Keeley and Angela Kelly see the challenge for the United States to be how to make this country more secure for the American people, while continuing to be a nation open to immigrants.