2003 Eugene Katz Award For Excellence in the Coverage of Immigration

Read Joel Mowbray's articles

National Press Club, Washington, DC

Mark Krikorian, Center for Immigration Studies

Accepting the award on behalf of Joel Mowbray:
John Miller, National Review

Keynote Speaker:
Michelle Malkin, Author and syndicated columnist

MARK KRIKORIAN: Good afternoon, folks. Thanks for coming. Welcome to the Center for Immigration Studies 2003 Eugene Katz award for excellence in the coverage of immigration. I hope there are no New York Times reporters here. We’re not going to be giving this award, as you can well imagine, to any New York Times reporters, although on the other hand it might have worked if I had fed the story to them. Then they might have reprinted it and put the bylines on it and it would have been okay with me. But that doesn’t happen, unfortunately, on this issue.

Ironically, this is the Eugene Katz award, and we’re giving it to Joel Mowbray of National Review, and neither Mr. Katz nor Mr. Mowbray will be here to join us, unfortunately. Mr. Katz, of course, passed away three years ago. Mr. Mowbray was unexpectedly sent on assignment in Israel and is there doing some writing for National Review and for others. In Joel’s stead the award is going to be accepted by John Miller, who is also at National Review. And he tells me was Joel’s first boss in Washington, about which John hopefully will have a little more to say in a few minutes.

Joel was the obvious candidate for this year’s award. The previous recipients of this award had been, for want of a better term, regular reporters at regular newspapers – The Washington Post, the Newhouse News Service, Copley News Service, Dallas Morning News. This is the first instance of a magazine reporter and also an opinion writer. But the award is not really for the opinion—it’s for the reporting that he’s done. Unlike many people who write commentary, myself included, Joel actually did some actual reporting and had facts in his writing that are often absent from others, and I include myself in that.

There’s been a lot of reporting on the subject of immigration since 9/11, an explosion of it. Some of it has been predictably bad. Some of it has been quite good. But Joel’s work stands out for the abuses that it exposed and the impact that it’s had on policy. The booklets that you all have include some of the high points and a kind of overview of what happened over the past year with regard to Joel’s writing. But just to summarize, his reporting on the Visa Express program in Saudi Arabia, which is an outgrowth of the State Department’s customer service mentality in the issuing of visas, caused the belated termination of that program and the firing of Mary Ryan, who was the head of the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs.

At the Center, we’ve been around for 15 years and spent huge amounts of money and still have never gotten anybody in the government fired, or any program in the government discontinued, so all I can say is hats off to Joel.

In a cover story in National Review he actually found the visa applications, the actual visa applications, for 15 out of the 19 hijackers, the other four applications having been destroyed by the State Department, and interviewed a number of former and current consular officers, at least one of whom is in this room now, who made pretty clear independently that there wasn’t a chance that a single one of these applications should have been approved. They should simply have been rejected on their face. Forget about terrorism. I mean, they didn’t need to have anything tattooed on their heads that they were going to kill Americans. These were laughably incomplete, inappropriate, inadequate applications that were only approved because of this almost built-in bias in favor of the foreign visa applicant in the State Department that hopefully may be changing.

Joel also showed tenacity in covering this, sometimes lacking in coverage of such a complicated issue as immigration. At one point, in fact, he was physically detained by a security officer at the State Department after a press briefing there, but didn’t give in. I asked him about this, and I don’t think he provoked it. I don’t think he paid these people to detain him, but it couldn’t have worked out better had he actually done that. And his persistence also exposed the fact that despite the State Department’s claim at one point that Visa Express had been discontinued, in fact they had only changed the name of the program. Only after did they actually do away with it once they were called yet again to the carpet.

Immigration policy, frankly, is in need of that kind of digging and that kind of tenacity, since as is frequently observed, it’s the most complex body of law after the tax code, so only a handful of experts, usually people with direct financial incentives, are well versed in it. The tax code, on the other hand, along with environmental law and a lot of other areas of regulation have a whole lot of different financial interests and political interests involved so there’s a good deal more scrutiny, whereas nobody, as I’ve observed to people before, nobody makes money off of tightening up the immigration system. So what we have is a kind of unspoken consensus to make sure that the policymaking and policy implementation is done in the dark, even more often than other areas of policy.

Joel’s kind of dogged determination is sorely needed. Often we end up with easy news stories. Again, this doesn’t apply just to immigration, but to much of policy, but more so to immigration. Somebody releases a press release, like the Center for Immigration Studies, and you end up with a news story. Now I’m pleased that we end up with those kinds of news stories, don’t get me wrong, but unfortunately we see coverage that often doesn’t go beyond that. Or human interest stories, an illegal alien wants to get a discount on his tuition to a state university or otherwise he won’t be able to achieve the American dream and get his higher education. He’s a sympathetic looking honors student, and you’ve all read these stories over and over again. It’s not necessarily that these stories are inappropriate. It’s just that we don’t see too much other kinds of immigration reporting.

Joel has contributed to that, and frankly some of our past winners of the Katz award have as well. For instance, a couple of reporters from The Dallas Morning News did this long series on higher skilled immigration, various categories, and actually immersed themselves in it. Boy, were they surprised at what they found, but the fact is, they actually did and learned something.

Somebody else who his topic wasn’t quite as sexy so I didn’t give him the award this year, but he did some real reporting—Wally Roche of The Baltimore Sun, who’s done sustained reporting on the investor visa category, where you promise or at least pretend to invest a certain amount of money in the United States and you get a green card. It wasn’t sexy, it wasn’t terrorism-related, certainly, but it’s the kind of reporting that we really need in this issue and that we see all too little of.

That, after all, is the point of the Katz award. It was named after Eugene Katz, who’s a native New Yorker who started his career after Dartmouth and Oxford as a reporter for the Daily Oklahoman. How he ended up in Oklahoma I never understood. It seemed like an unlikely choice. In 1928 he joined his family business, working as an advertising salesman for the Katz Agency and in 1952 became president of Katz Communications, which grew into a half billion dollar firm, which dealt both in radio and television advertising as well as owning and managing radio stations. He was a member of the Center’s Board until he turned 90 in 1997, and passed away three years ago.

The point of the award, as I said earlier, is to promote good reporting. It is, however, not propagandistic in the sense of promoting the Center’s take and approach on the immigration issue. The Center is animated by a pro-immigrant but low immigration vision that seeks fewer immigrants but a warmer welcome. Joel, on the other hand, doesn’t really buy into that. His take on immigration is not that the levels of immigration or the make-up is somehow problematic, but rather looking at the mechanics of it and how the function of the immigration system is seriously flawed. That’s the kind of reporting that I am eager to recognize, even if the writer himself doesn’t necessarily share the Center’s entire approach on immigration.

Accepting the award is going to be John Miller from National Review, and then I’ll introduce our keynote speaker after he says a few words about Joel. John, if you’ll come up. Joel not being here, I’m going to give the award to John and then he’s going to give it back to me in order to give it to Joel. This is what it is; it will be engraved with his name on it. It’s a Nambe clock, for those people who are aficionados of these things. I actually met somebody whose wife actually collects Nambe vases, Nambe clocks, Nambe bowls and I’d never even heard of this until I found this award. Anyway, I hope it’s something John will enjoy. John?

JOHN MILLER: Thank you, Mark. I was going to use it to time myself up here, but batteries are not included. (Laughter) That won’t work unfortunately.

I guess if I were Jayson Blair I would tell you I am Joel Mowbray. (Laughter) Thank you all for this honor. I would like to say I am very pleased to be here, first of all because I hold the Center for Immigration Studies in such high regard. Mark Krikorian, Steve Camarota, and everybody associated with the Center do very good work. I rely upon it all the time myself as a reporter and I hold you guys in really highest regard.

I’m also pleased to be here on behalf of Joel, who couldn’t be here because he is in Israel right now. I guess having made America safe last summer, he’s trying to make Israel safe for this summer, a worthy cause. I’ve known Joel for six or seven years. He was an intern of mine when he was a college student at the University of Illinois. I was working at the Center for Equal Opportunity at the time. It’s a think tank run by Linda Chavez, and Linda had gone and given a speech on the campus there in Illinois. A student came up and spoke to her afterwards and inquired about summertime opportunities. It was Joel. We brought him on. He worked for us one summer where he developed expertise in running Xerox machines and making coffee and all the things we expect of interns.

He also did some writing for us and impressed me at the time as a young man with some potential. We stayed in touch over the years. He came to Washington, earned a law degree at Georgetown, worked on the Hill, where he was an expert in, of all things, Social Security reform, and also was involved with an internet company that sold DVDs online that wound up having some promise but not making it.

About a year and a half ago I was having one of my lunches—we would do this every four or six weeks I’d say, at Pete’s Diner on the Hill, which is the best place for a fast and greasy meal on the Hill. He told me he was thinking about throwing himself into the world of opinion journalism, which is what I do for a living. I encouraged him, although I’d have to say I was a little skeptical about whether it would all work out for him, but I encouraged him and tried to help him along. He started doing some very good work for a column he wrote at townhall.com. He started writing for National Review Online.

I remember about a year ago in April he told me a story he was thinking about writing. This something he would do often, call me up and say, does this sound like a good story, should I pursue it? He went on to describe how a Palestinian suicide bomber would be able to come to the United States and create the kinds of problems here that we’re seeing in Tel Aviv and elsewhere. I said to him, well, that’s an interesting topic but unless you have some real facts about this, I’m not sure it would work. This would be the horror-movie-as-journalism kind of thing. What if a dirty bomb went off on the Mall? All this speculative stuff that really isn’t journalism. It’s something else. I sort of warned him away from it.

He thankfully didn’t take my advice because he wrote that piece for National Review Online, and as a result he got a phone call from someone deep inside the State Department with a tip that wound up leading to his Visa Express story, which is the one where he really started making a name for himself on this issue.

We at National Review knew that was an important story when he was working on it. We gave him a lot of space to do it. I don’t think we quite appreciated how important it was. It wasn’t even our cover story in that issue, although I think it was mentioned on the cover. We did give him a lot of words and he made the case about Visa Express still going on, even though it was the reason why some of the 9/11 terrorists got into our country. I think it all dawned on us how important this story was a few weeks later when he called from the State Department—actually I happened to pick up the phone in the D.C. office of National Review and he said, “John, I’m being detained by four big men at the State Department.” It turned out that the State Department was concerned about some of the things he was reporting.

He hadn’t revealed any secrets, he hadn’t revealed any classified information. They wanted to know who his sources were. Joel didn’t tell them, and got out, and I think later that day I said, “This is the best thing that’s ever happened to you professionally.” Howard Kurtz did a story on it the next day and Joel was this 1st Amendment hero for about 15 minutes. Then he did the terror visa story, and has just stayed on this beat for the last year. He’s completing a book right now, which is tentatively called Dangerous Diplomacy. I think it’s supposed to be out in July or August or early fall, but it’s about the State Department and I think it will have some new revelations in it, so that’s something we can all look forward to.

I know Joel regrets not being here today and he sent me a message by e-mail, I think from Israel. It’s just a few paragraphs. I’d like to read it. This is roughly what he would say if he were here standing in front of you. “Seven months after 9/11 I wrote a piece on how lax border security increased the likelihood of suicide bombings in America by making it too easy for radicals to get into the US. Like most people, though, I had no idea of the dangers posed by the US visa system operated by the State Department.

“In response to the piece, someone e-mailed me to tell me that a program that let in three of the 9/11 terrorists was still open. I thought that the person had to be crazy, or at least overly dramatic, but sure enough, visa express was in operation more than half a year after 9/11, with all Saudi residents submitting their visa application forms to private Saudi travel agents.

“I don’t take credit for ‘discovering’ the existence of visa express, but State was so proud of it that it promoted it on the US embassy in Riyadh’s web site. But no other journalist cared enough to write about. The only other journalist who has decided to launch multiple investigations to challenge the government to honor its obligation to keep us safe was Michelle Malkin, who I believe is every bit as deserving to win this award.

“It’s ironic that I’m getting an award from a group who has a principal focus on reducing immigration levels. Though I think very highly of CIS, I do not agree on the key question of immigration levels. But post-9/11 everyone should be able to agree on what is now also a principal focus of CIS, regardless of how many people the US lets in each year. We have to thoroughly screen each visitor and immigrant to do everything possible to keep us safe. CIS has been drawing attention to the gaping loopholes in our border security, so I’m honored they have presented me with an award.

“I owe an incredible debt to National Review for giving me the platform for getting this story out, and for lending me the expertise to improve my stories. Rich Lowery and Jay Nordlinger provided leadership to a young writer, guided the development of my research, and helped me to achieve necessary clarity to find the stories that should be told. Katherine Lopez, who I’m not sure actually sleeps, was there for me at all hours of the day and night to get my NRO stories finished and published.” That’s true—Katherine Lopez does not sleep.

“And Mike Patemera (ph), who edited my two visa pieces for the magazine, did some of the best work I’ve ever seen. He cut and cut and the pieces got better and better. Most of all, though, I’m grateful to such an established publication to champion a new upstart reporter.”

So there you have it from Joel. I’d like to say once again on behalf of National Review to the Center for Immigration Studies, thank you very much for this honor.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Thank you, John. Our keynote speaker is very appropriate for this topic. She actually wrote a column at the end of last year nominating Joel as the whistleblower of the year, as it was entitled. Essentially she nominated him for this award. When I called him to tell him we were going to be giving him the award, he said, no, you should really be giving it to Michelle instead of me. So they have essentially nominated each other for the award. We had to pick one. Sorry, Michelle.

Michelle Malkin has done an enormous amount to focus attention on the almost unbelievable nature of our immigration system. Most notably she’s written a book, which if you don’t have you should get, called “Invasion,” which spells out all the various holes in our immigration system that permit criminals and terrorists, human rights violators, every kind of lowlife you can possibly imagine to get into the United States.

Michelle has won a number of journalism awards of her own. She’s written for the Seattle Times and the LA Daily News, is now a syndicated columnist, and has probably been the highest profile critic of the lax security component in our immigration system in the country, and has become, frankly, something of a celebrity, deservedly, because of that. She’s going to offer us a few thoughts about Joel and about this topic. Michelle?

MICHELLE MALKIN: Thank you, Mark. You now, the Jayson Blair affair at the New York Times has monopolized the media elite’s attention on a promising young journalist gone terribly awry. So it is a pleasure to speak today instead about a budding young journalist who incidentally is the same age as Jayson Blair, who has greatly strengthened rather than undermined the media’s watchdog role. He’s blown the whistle on powerful figures of authority, exposed deceit, and forced change on front lines of homeland security—stunning accomplishments for someone his age.

Essentially he’s done our country a great service by continuing to direct his investigative talents and energy toward our still-vulnerable immigration and entrance policies. I’ve known Joel for almost three years now. As I’ve gotten to get closer to him I’ve come to expect the Joel phone greeting. And it doesn’t begin with hello, or how are you. It just launches right into, “You’re not going to believe this.” Or, “Hey, wait til you hear about this.” Always followed by an exclamatory, “I am not making this up.” Of course, if only The New York Times had put Jayson Blair on the State Department beat, it wouldn’t have had to fabricate so many stories because, as Joel has discovered time and time again, there are enough strange but true tales just waiting to be unearthed at Foggy Bottom to last an honest reporter’s lifetime.

Joel is really an energy bunny of a journalist. I don’t think he sleeps either, actually, and he’s used that boundless spirit to hammer State and to scoop the Beltway press corps at the State Department with story after story exposing the bureaucratic foul-ups and diplomatic sell-outs that have resulted in national security nightmares. We talked about the Visa Express program a little bit. It took relentless questioning from Joel before the Bush administration actually killed that program, months after the terrorist attack. Afterwards obviously the feds hadn’t learned because what they did was try to punish the messenger instead. As John mentioned, his detention did make national headlines and really put Joel on the map.

What I have found particularly shameful about the whole event was that aside from the Howard Kurtz story and a few blog entries there wasn’t a single reporter from the State Department press corps who really criticized those bullying tactics against a fellow journalist. But Joel remained undaunted, and that’s one of the things I admire about him the most. He really is a purveyor of pit bull journalism. Of course there was an investigation of Mary Ryan, and speaking of pit bull journalism, he’s continuing to hammer on her negligence, and her lies, essentially. He charged that she had knowingly deceived Congress by telling lawmakers that “there was nothing State could have done to prevent the terrorists from obtaining visas.” Well, he debunked that law in that exhaustive article for National Review on October 28, 2002. And the visas-for-terrorists article, which was a recent National Magazine Award finalist, laid out how the State Department violated its own laws repeatedly in allowing at least 15 of the 19 terrorists September 11th terrorists to obtain visas.

I always delight in Joel’s going through the details of those visa applications because there could be no clearer example of how sloppy and how lax enforcement of their own laws the State Department was. Just a reminder of some of the things he found. Only one of the 15 provided an actual address. That is required by law. And that was only because his first application was refused. The rest listed only general locations, including California, New York, hotel D.C., and hotel. One of the terrorists listed his US destination as simply “No.” And even more amazingly, he got a visa.

There was a terrorist who listed his occupation as “t-e-a-t-e-r,” and his travel destination as “W-a-s-a-n-t-w-n.” Consular officials ignored basic provisions of immigration law known as 214(b), which holds that all non-immigrant visa applicants are presumed to be would-be immigrants unless proved to interviewers that they won’t break the terms of their visas. And of course in that NR article Joel concluded, “If law had been enforced, most of the 9/11 terrorists never would have entered the U.S. Most of them were young, single men with no demonstrated means of support, and with few or no ties to their own country, meaning that they were classic overstay candidates.” Given that visa applicants have the burden of proving their eligibility, this raises a question: how did they clear the hurdles the law is intended to put in their path when they were already saddled with forms that could generously be described as sloppy? Of course, those of you who have followed the work of the Center for Immigration Studies know that the neglect of 214(b) is of course nothing new. Steve and Nicolai Wenzel, a former State Department Foreign Service officer, have insightfully highlighted the lack of enforcement of the 214(b) provision before the September 11th attacks.

There are countless red flags in the 9/11 visa applications that were negligently overlooked at the expense of 3,000 innocent people, and both the General Accounting Office and the State Department’s Inspector General have come to similar conclusions in lengthy reports. State’s “existing policies,” the inspector general noted recently, “remain inadequate.”

While most of Joel’s reporting in this area has focused on the front door, he does also understand very well the importance of turning off the magnets that continue to attract border violators through the back door. Earlier this year, for example, he wrote yet another very important story on the State Department and the Social Security Administration’s plans to siphon off up to $345 billion or more from the Social Security trust fund over a couple of decades, mostly to pay benefits to Mexican citizens who work illegally in the US.

Joel picked up on a glaring oversight in a lot of the mainstream media reports that initially came out about this so-called totalization agreement. Their cost estimates peg the price tag at hundreds of millions of dollars per year, to be paid out to almost 40,000 Mexican citizens living legally in the U.S., but not mentioned in those initial reports was how the accord with Mexico would differ from a lot of the existing totalization agreements with other countries. That aspect was something Joel found in a memo that illegal aliens from Mexico would also become eligible for Social Security benefits, which would force the costs to skyrocket.

In the aftermath of September 11th, many advocates for unrestricted immigration on both the left and the right remain stuck in a pre-war mentality. They continue to argue that there is no connection between controlling illegal immigration and protecting national security. They consider it scapegoating to link lax immigration enforcement via the front door or the back door to September 11th, and hold to the fatally flawed belief that we can allow millions of good illegal immigrants to stream across the border while retaining the ability to screen out bad illegal immigrants who are seeking to destroy us.

The continued tolerance of so-called minor immigration crimes—cutting through rusty barbed wire, overstaying visas, committing marriage fraud, employing illegal day labor—all leads to ongoing national security problems. It creates an environment that is conducive, that is ripe for rampant criminal and gang activity, infiltration by foreign terrorist cells, and internal corruption. Opponents of stricter immigration control say that all we need to do to fight terrorism is reform our intelligence agencies, nibble at the edges of visa issuance reform, and reshuffle management at State and Homeland Security. They insist on only going after the big obvious targets, suspected al Qaeda operatives applying for visas overseas, and leaving everyone else who is neglecting or breaking our immigration laws alone.

Yet I believe as long as the stubborn signals of an immigration system that is in complete disrepair, and I’m not just talking about immigration problems but our entrance policies as well, which Joel has focused on, homeland security is a pipe dream. Foreign terrorists will read the signs of this disregard for the law, disregard for 214(b), drivers’ licenses for illegal aliens, in-state college tuition discount rates, non-enforcement of employer sanctions, rampant asylum fraud, document fraud, sanctuary, amnesty. They conclude that they can still take free advantage of this.

When you have scores of illegal day laborers who are allowed to congregate openly at 7-11s and near government offices, it sends a signal that no one cares and no one’s in charge. That’s exactly the kind of environment in which the September 11th hijackers were able to obtain fake photo IDs from illegal aliens hanging out at a 7-11 in Falls Church, Virginia, just a stone’s throw from the Pentagon. And it was in the same environment of disrespect for the rule of law that Mahmoud Abu Malebrey filed a bogus application for amnesty and won permanent residence. And obviously the same environment in which the September 11th terrorists got away with filing incomplete visa applications, in clear violation of the law.

Joel and I have talked often about the need for all of our entry points to be targeted in tandem. He understands the totality of the homeland security problem. Nominally addressing non-immigrant admissions, but also border security, illegal alien benefits, secure identification, deportation lapses, etc., etc., etc. It’s comforting to know that he has gotten the front door covered. Would that more journalists approached this vital issue with as much verve and insight.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Thank you, Michelle, and thank you, John, for standing in for Joel. Maybe at next year’s award ceremony I’ll get Joel to speak. I appreciate all of your coming and I’m going to mix a little bit afterwards. I encourage you to get some more lunch before Steve, my research director, finishes off what’s there. Thanks for coming.