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Spotlight on US Immigration Controls Following 9/11 Attacks - 2002-05-25

In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. government has taken a series of steps to increase security across the country. One of the components of that campaign focuses on tightening immigration controls. A recently-published study shows that most of the foreign-born terrorists linked to crimes in the United States in the past eight years had also violated U.S. immigration laws.

The study tracks the immigration history of 48 foreign-born nationals either charged or convicted of terrorist attacks inside the United States since 1993.

Steve Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies and author of the report, says 28 had entered the country illegally or had temporary visas as tourists or students which expired while they remained in the U.S.. Seventeen were lawful residents or naturalized American citizens.

Mr. Camarota argues that many could have been stopped if immigration laws were better enforced. He also calls for tighter controls to better regulate who can enter the country and who can stay. "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 says.

The Center for Immigration Studies also favors tighter border controls and more effective tracking of temporary visa holders. But Mr. Camarota acknowledges the Immigration and Naturalization Services and law enforcement agencies do not have adequate resources to do the job.

The INS estimates that more than nine-million foreigners are residing in the country illegally. For now, there are only 2,000 INS agents available to track illegal aliens, check on illegal hiring practices and help police border entries.

Law professor Jan Ting blames the chronic lack of resources on what he calls America's schizophrenic attitude toward immigration. Mr. Ting served as an assistant INS commissioner from 1990 to 1993. "On the one hand, we are all a nation of immigrants. We all have immigrant ancestors who(m) we honor for what they have done in coming to the United States, and we respect the role of immigration in building the United States into the country that it is," he says. "On the other hand, most Americans recognize that we simply cannot have an open door for everyone in the world who wants to come to the United States, so we have to have immigration laws that limit both the number and the characteristics of the individuals whom we allow to immigrate to the United States."

Mr. Ting says the September 11 terrorist attack has highlighted the need for more effective immigration controls.

Mark Miller edits the International Migration Review. He says the enforcement of U.S. immigration laws as part of the counter-terrorism campaign depends on closer cooperation with neighbors and allies.

He points to the increased cooperation with Mexico and Canada on border controls and European efforts to crack down on the trafficking of fake passports and illegal aliens. "We need much more effective and systematic cooperation with our allies to make our immigration law more credible," he says.

But Mr. Miller sees immigration as just one leg of the counter-terrorism campaign. "The immigration component is a vital component of a much broader war. The war is going to be vitally affected by what we do on complementary issues," he says. "Questions of Palestinian statehood, things like that, need to be addressed by the U.S. government in a very urgent way just as we need to address the shortcomings of our immigration law in an urgent way."

Still, immigration activists warn against an over-enthusiastic enforcement of the law and tracking procedures that would harass legal immigrants or violate their civil rights.