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US Immigration Debate Intensified by 9-11 Attacks - 2002-02-02

The debate over how many immigrants to allow into the United States each year is nearly as old as the Republic itself. That debate has intensified in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, as activists on both sides of the immigration divide press their case with Congress and the American people.

Jamal Baadani is the new face of immigration. He and his family left their native Yemen when he was 10 years old. At 17, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps, and during the next 10 years served combat tours in Beirut and the Persian Gulf. "I'm here in front of you, privileged to wear this U.S. Marine Corps uniform, to say, thank you, America. Thank you for giving my family and me a place to call home," he says. "Thank you for giving my family and my children an opportunity to be free."

Sergeant Baadani was one of four immigrants recently honored by the National Immigration Forum, a Washington-based group that wants to liberalize the nation's immigration laws.

Pro-immigration groups fear that the September 11 terrorist attacks could result in the public and the Congress supporting new limits on immigration.

But Bush Administration officials insist that immigration remains an American strength, not a weakness.

James Ziglar, commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, says "the events of September 11 were caused by evil, not by immigration (applause). Therefore, efforts to enhance our national security must focus on identifying and thwarting those who are intent on tearing us down, not preventing the many millions worldwide who want to help us build this nation," he says.

But pro-immigration and civil rights groups are concerned that some of the administration's actions in the wake of September 11 have undermined assurances from federal officials that they are not targeting legal immigrants, especially Arab-Americans.

James Zogby is president of the Arab-American Institute. He says the efforts of federal law enforcement agents to question 5,000 young men of Arab descent in connection with the terrorism investigation has sparked fear within the Arab-American community. "These actions have only served to undercut the very message of the president, which is that our target is not Arab-Americans and American Muslims, it is not people living in this country," he says. "In fact, what these actions have done is said, 'yes it is.'"

While most Americans believe that immigration, historically, has been generally positive for the country, critics of the current policy argue that the United States is simply letting too many people in, both legally and illegally.

The Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, is one of the groups seeking to limit immigration. FAIR estimates that immigration, both legal and illegal, actually costs American taxpayers $29 billion a year in programs for education, health care and welfare that cater to immigrants.

Some critics even advocate a two-year moratorium on immigration to help the United States absorb the millions of newcomers who arrived during the 1990's. Among them is former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, a recent guest on VOA's "Press Conference USA": "If I am right in my concern and pessimism, we are going to lose our country," he says. "So, what I argue for is a halt (on immigration), and let's all take a look, and see if the enormous waves of immigration coming in can be, or are being, assimilated and Americanized, or whether, like many other countries around the world, we too are being Balkanized."

In addition to a halt on immigration, Mr. Buchanan says the United States should also force millions of illegal immigrants to return to their home countries. "Secondly, I would urge the president to repatriate the 8 to 11-million illegal aliens in the United States right now," he says. "There are more illegal aliens who broke the law and broke into our country, there are more of these folks here than there are people in (the states of) Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island together."

But even those who want to restrict immigration concede that forcing millions of illegal immigrants to return home is unlikely. In fact, the Bush Administration last year proposed an amnesty for an estimated three million Mexican immigrants who are in the country illegally.

Even as the debate continues over how much immigration is enough, few could argue with the contributions that many new immigrants are making to American society.

Firefighter Trevor Burrell emigrated from Northern Ireland in 1996, and settled in Northern Virginia. On September 11, he was among the dozens of emergency workers who rushed to the Pentagon to evacuate survivors and aid the wounded. "We all come here for a better way of life, a better standard of living, more opportunities for ourselves and for our families, and to take advantage of a freedom and a diversity that only the United States can offer," he says.

Trevor Burrell was recently honored as one of the most inspiring immigrants of 2001 by the National Immigration Forum.