September 18, 2001
The Washington Post has reported that the FBI has detained 75 immigrants in connection with last week's attacks. The terrorists who died in the explosion make another 20 or so. If these detentions are correct, as many as 95 immigrants, perhaps more, many of them illegal, murdered about 5,000 Americans. Many of these immigrants were allowed into to the United States to study flying at Florida flight schools, to infiltrate airports, to stage dry runs, and to otherwise plot their attack. They often overstayed their visas.
According to experts, a basic reason the attack was not stopped is that the agency responsible for admitting these terrorists, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (I.N.S.), is overwhelmed; its systems and procedures are out of control.
The I.N.S. cannot reliably track even the simplest facts. The I.N.S. database does not know, for example, exactly where an immigrant entered America. It does not know how many times an immigrant has entered on a visa. It does not know whether an immigrant has repeatedly overstayed his tourist visas. It does not know whether a student visa has been overstayed. It does not have an immediate computer record of whether an immigrant has left the country: everything is written on paper and first stored in boxes. Former Commissioner Doris Meissner admitted that the I.N.S. was unable to check citizenship applications adequately because of the enormous pressure to grant large numbers of citizenship and other visas in the 1990's. It has no electronic means of validating a state birth certificate to detect forgery. Its computer system is incompatible with the State Department's system identifying suspected terrorists.
In short, the whole documentary structure of the I.N.S. is, in the words of Reagan's Attorney General William French Smith, "a foundation of sand."
The first thing you do when you are in a hole is to stop digging deeper. In the case of the I.N.S., the way to stop digging ourselves into an ever-deeper hole is to pause in issuing new visas. A pause is the necessary first step so that the I.N.S. can focus its energy on the World Trade Center investigation. A pause is the necessary first step to repairing the damage, to get the systems and procedures of the I.N.S. back under control.
A 90-Day Pause provision should be inserted into the upcoming anti-terrorist legislation: "The Immigration and Naturalization Service shall not issue any new visas of any kind for 90 days from the date this act takes effect, except that the Attorney General may authorize up to 2,000 visas over this 90-day period in cases of critical national interest."
Such a 90-Day Pause would not affect visas already issued. Nor would it prevent tourism from Europe, Japan, and other places where visas are not required. But a 90-Day Pause would allow the I.N.S. some relief to focus all its time and effort on assisting the F.B.I. with its investigation - and on fixing an out-of-control immigration system.
As politicians call for suspending civil liberties across the country, every citizen must answer the question: should we trammel the right of citizens to be secure in their persons and property – but not the right of terrorists to waltz back and forth across our borders at will?