The U.S. administration is examining ways to tighten immigration controls in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Immigrant rights activists are looking at ways to balance national security needs and protection of immigrants' rights.
For years, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the INS, has been trying to tighten border controls and immigration laws to better regulate the flow of immigrants into the United States.
Now, the U.S. administration says tougher measures are needed to help prevent further terrorist attacks like the one on the World Trade Center in New York, which U.S. officials say was carried out by Islamic extremists, some of whom were in the country on valid visas.
The administration is seeking tighter controls at air terminals. Some U.S. lawmakers have proposed more perimeter fencing, electronic and police surveillance along land borders.
Migration Policy Institute co-founder Demetrios Papademetriou says tightening border controls will not necessarily trap would-be terrorists who have a support network and financial backing.
"Think of all the impediments under which determined, but poorly informed, and poor, illegal immigrants have to deal with, and then they come through," he said. "Can you imagine if they have the resources and means that the prospective terrorist has, how easy it is to cross the border?"
Immigration activists and community leaders are looking at how to strike the right balance between security and protection of immigrants' rights. They also worry about the consequences, if stricter laws are used to scrutinize certain ethnic groups.
They point to Arab-Americans who already are feeling targeted as a group, in the wake of the investigation into the terrorist attacks. Many Arab businesses have been attacked. Universities report that Arab students have dropped out of classes and returned home for fear of harassment.
As part of that investigation, the government wants the power to indefinitely detain non-citizens for questioning about the September 11 plot, without having to present evidence of their possible involvement to a court. Former INS lawyer Paul Virtue cautions against the government using immigration violations as a way to detain terrorist suspects.
"We're looking at a different standard between criminal proceedings and immigration proceedings," he said. "And, I think that's why we see a lot of people being detained on immigration charges. [because] You may or may not have sufficient information to prove a person's criminal culpability beyond a reasonable doubt, or you may not have unclassified information, or information that agencies are comfortable with using in criminal proceedings. So, that's why we're seeing many people, who we would hope would have been prosecuted, [instead] placed in immigration proceedings and removed [from the country]."
Immigration experts argue that U.S. efforts to prevent terrorism must be balanced to avoid unfairly targeting immigrants.
Arab Americans say the manhunt for suspected Arab terrorists has unfairly targeted an entire ethnic group, not just individuals a practice known as racial profiling.
Professor Yonah Alexander directs the Potomac Institute's International Center for Terrorism Studies. He says focusing on one ethnic group or religion misses the target. "The problem is not Islam," he said. "The problem is terrorism."
Immigration experts like Kathy Newland of the Migration Policy Institute say balanced immigration policies that protect immigrant rights can also help the campaign against terrorism. "Greater security is primarily an intelligence issue, rather than an immigration issue," she said. "But some kinds of immigration and border control measures can improve our chances of gathering the intelligence we need to identify and obstruct terrorists' plans."
Immigration experts propose tighter security controls to combat fraud in processing visas and passports, more widespread monitoring of visitor arrivals and departures to detect visa overstays and coordination with other governments to share data on asylum applicants.