Should We Keep Them Out?

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Entering at JFK

As the four doomed jets took off the morning of September 11th, members of the House of Representatives were preparing to take up House provision 245 (I), a measure which would allow non-legal residents to claim green cards at local INS offices, rather than requiring a trip abroad to consular offices. It was expected to pass handily, despite some deep-seated resistance from conservative groups.

Now, of course, that resistance is not confined to one end of the political spectrum. In the month after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, many Americans, including self-identified civil libertarians, who once wholeheartedly embraced more liberal immigration policies, are now unapologetically changing their tune. They're asking that immigration be made harder, not easier, and seeking answers to fundamental questions about just how easy it should be it even enter the country — and who should be allowed in.

Grim statistics According to INS officials, 16 out of the 19 terrorists involved in the September 11th hijackings arrived in the U.S. with legal visas. One of the men linked to the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center became a legal U.S. resident thanks to a provision similar to 245 (I).

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Confronted with the most horrible consequences of porous borders and relatively lax immigration policies, the U.S. public is largely prepared to crack down on illegal immigrants. So is Congress: Both houses are set to decide new immigration policies, including a statute that would allow the government to hold an illegal alien suspected to threaten national security for seven days without filing charges. After a week's time, authorities must either officially file charges or let the immigrant go free. (The previous limit on detention was 24 hours). This sounds like a Draconian measure compared to pre-September 11th regulations, but it's far more lenient than the unlimited detention originally advocated by Attorney General John Ashcroft — and as such, it's a compromise civil libertarians and immigration lawyers are willing to live with.

Meanwhile, the uncertainty keeps mounting. There are so many areas of life in the U.S. that are touched by the issue of immigration: Our schools, our workforce, our relationships with our neighbors. Finding a civilized and intelligent way to address our fears — while protecting our country — will take years of patient and hard-nosed diplomacy. Here are some flashpoints:

Student visas

There are some 500,000 people living in the U.S. with student visas, which is widely considered the easiest way to get past INS controls. Should we, as some have suggested, require these students to carry special identification papers, or to register their thumbprint or a DNA sample as part of their entrance exam? Should a red flag go up when a registered international student fails to show up for classes? (This last scenario may have actually played out last month; Hani Hanjour was granted a visa to attend an English-language school in California and never showed up for class. Hanjour, who applied from Saudi Arabia, has the same name as one of the September 11th hijackers.)

Such measures may not be far off — Senator Dianne Feinstein of California has asked for $32 million to expedite the implementation of an electronic tracking system for international students. The system was theoretically approved back in 1996 as part of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act, but was never set in motion.

Should we tighten the U.S.-Canadian border?

Before September 11th, the 5,525-mile stretch that separates the northern United States from Canada wasn't considered much of a border — it was seen more as a formality designed to enhance the "international" experience of U.S. tourists. After the attacks, however, the border took on new meaning, and new political weight.

The events of September 11th forced many Canadians to focus an untrained eye on their own very liberal immigration policies, which some argue serve as an open invitation to terrorists intent on making their way south into the U.S. Case in point: Ahmed Ressam, a 34-year-old Algerian national who was based in Montreal and decided to take a trip to Los Angeles for the millennium celebration. He was stopped by U.S. border police with 118 pounds of explosives and four timing devices in the trunk of his car. Authorities believe Ressam was planning to blow up LAX just in time for the New Year.

In an unexpected offshoot of the war on terrorism, border-related spats have surfaced between the U.S. and Canada in the month since the attacks. Some Americans, citing reports that at least five of the September 11th hijackers entered the U.S. via Canadian borders, accuse Canadian immigration workers of inexcusable laxity. Many in Washington are convinced that Canada is what stands between the U.S. and a truly effective immigration policy. There is a proposal circulating in D.C. that would triple the number of border police along the Canadian border, where, according to the Attorney General's office, only 500 U.S. officers are currently deployed, versus the 9,000 deployed on our border with Mexico.

A few others, sounding a more conciliatory note, point to intelligence failures here at home, and encourage enhanced cooperation and information sharing with Canadian border patrol.

In Canada, authorities are wary of any Washington-based directives. "The laws of Canada will be passed by the Parliament of Canada," Prime Minister Jean Chretien told reporters last week, after being asked about John Ashcroft's plans to beef up the border — seemingly with little regard for Canadian approval.

Adios, globalization

Then there's the southern border. It's only been a few months since George Bush and Vicente Fox giddily discussed a newly liberalized border policy between the U.S. and Mexico, and already the whole conversation seems like a distant memory.

As far as our neighbors to the south are concerned, the September 11th terrorist attacks may as well have sounded the death knell for an open border. President Fox, on a sympathy visit to Washington last week, had barely shrugged off his jacket before he was informed in no uncertain terms that any plans to loosen up work visas or provide easier access for Mexican students was pretty much out of the question. We'll rethink the border, U.S. officials told Fox, but it won't look much like what we'd originally imagined.

Many have discussed globalization as an unforeseen casualty of terror — and nowhere would the sting of American withdrawal be felt more keenly than in Mexico, where a new President promised Mexicans a new, mutually beneficial relationship with the U.S. (That could still happen, of course, if plans to establish a North American security zone gain momentum).

Action on the Mexican border has been swift: Pedestrians crossing into the U.S., once free to pass through after answering a few cursory questions, are now subject to intensive scrutiny. And on October 1st, in a procedural change planned long before the September attacks, the INS began requiring Mexican nationals to present a new "laser visa" at the border, imprinted with a photo and other imbedded information.

How do we bolster a flailing system?

Rather than pushing for a more streamlined system for enforcing immigration policy, many advocate a closer (and better-funded) working relationship between the counter-terrorism units at the FBI and CIA and INS border patrols. Two of the 19 terrorists involved in the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center were reportedly on a "lookout list" circulating the intelligence community; unfortunately, that list never made it into the hands of the right INS border patrols.

Another concept percolating in Washington would provide a "North American security zone" — a thick legal and physical barrier drawn around the continent that would include our Canadian and Mexican neighbors, and would fundamentally change America's concept of borders. Whether we're ready to go that far remains to be seen.