Eternal Vigilance: Handing out green cards is a security matter.

By Mark Krikorian on July 23, 2002

National Review Online, July 23, 2002

The House Select Committee on Homeland Security on Friday approved its bill to create the new homeland-security Cabinet department, which will be considered by the full House this week.

The problem many NRO readers may first notice is that the bill leaves the people responsible for issuing visas within the State Department. But there is an equally important mistake that isn't likely to get the same attention.

The bill accepts the recommendation of the Judiciary Committee, expressed in a vote earlier this month, to keep the immigration services functions of the Immigration and Naturalization Service within the Justice Department, while the rest would move to Homeland Security. In other words, the Border Patrol, immigration inspectors at airports and land-entry points, INS investigators and detention officers would work for the new Cabinet agency, while those responsible for deciding who gets permanent residency (green cards), political asylum, and citizenship would be in an entirely different agency.

This would be a big mistake.

Keeping immigration services and enforcement in the same department was the explicit aim of President Bush's original proposal, and has been reiterated by the administration since then. Gov. Ridge told the Senate last month, "To make the system work, the right hand of enforcement must know what the left hand of visa application and processing is doing at all times." And Attorney General Ashcroft last week underlined that sentiment: "I believe that it's very important that they be connected, because there are frequently overlaps. I believe that is best undertaken if you don't have these two functions in different Cabinet agencies."

As the comments by Ashcroft and Ridge suggest, the immigration-services work of the INS - the provision of "immigration benefits" such as permanent residency, asylum, employment authorization documents, or citizenship - is inherently two-sided. It consists both of a welcome for legitimate applicants and the enforcement of the law against those who do not qualify, including, obviously, potential terrorists. Only by placing immigration services within the new Department of Homeland Security will those charged with providing those services be likely to fully appreciate their responsibility in ensuring homeland security and have the tools to carry it out properly.

Imagine access to our society as a ladder or a staircase; at the bottom are foreigners outside the United States, and at the top are immigrants who have become naturalized citizens. Visas and border control are very important because they help keep terrorists from getting into the country in the first place. There is no question that this should be the top priority; radical Islam's strategy is to kill us in our homes and schools and offices, so we need to keep the radical Muslims as far away from the home front as possible.

But simply getting into the United States doesn't mean a terrorist is home-free; each step up the ladder - illegal alien, then short-term visitor, long-term visitor, permanent resident, and finally, citizen - affords a terrorist additional opportunities to harm us. Our immigration bureaucracy needs to approach each step not only as an opportunity to grant benefits to legitimate applicants, but also as an opportunity to trip up those who mean us harm. This is unlikely to happen if the INS's service functions are not included in the department responsible for homeland security.

If a foreigner abroad is at the bottom of our figurative staircase, the next step up would be an illegal alien. The recent Center for Immigration Studies report, on the immigration histories of the 48 foreign-born al Qaeda operatives engaging in terrorism here over the past decade, found that 12 were illegal aliens when they committed their crimes. Such a terrorist obviously has the ability to attack us, since he is physically present here, but keeping him from moving up the staircase is essential, because his lack of legal status limits his freedom of action. Even before 9/11, when it was relatively painless to be an illegal alien, there were still certain risks to getting a job, applying for a driver's license, being stopped by a traffic cop, etc. Those risks have increased significantly, much to the chagrin of the many hapless, non-terrorist illegal aliens whom the law is now finally catching up with.

Zacarias Moussaoui, the 20th hijacker, demonstrates some of the limitations of illegal status. As a French citizen, he was able to enter and visit the United States for up to 90 days without a visa; but after the 90 days passed, he became an illegal alien. So when his erratic behavior at flight school attracted attention, the INS was able to take him into custody as an illegal alien. Anything an illegal-alien terrorist does that attracts attention might get him arrested.

This is not necessarily the case for a terrorist on the next step up the staircase - a short-term temporary visa, such as for a tourist or business traveler (14 of the 48 terrorists over the past decade have been on such visas at the time of their crimes). This certainly affords the terrorist legal status, though the short duration of such a visit (at least the short time before the visitor turns into an illegal alien) and the limits on exiting and reentering the country make it difficult to engage in extensive conspiracies. We can see the constraints of short-term visas in the fact that the 9/11 terrorists on still-valid visas were merely the muscle - they assisted in the attacks, but arrived in the United States relatively late and had little role in planning or preparation. The actual organizers, such as Hani Hanjour, Nawaf al Hamzi, and Mohammed Atta, ended up having to overstay their short-term visas as some point.

To organize a conspiracy, then, it would be more helpful to take the next step up the staircase - a long-term, but still temporary, visa, such as for a student or worker (an applicant for asylum would fit here as well, since he can remain until the Justice Department decides his case, which could take some time). Five of the decade's 48 terrorists had such status. A terrorist in this situation could remain here legally for many years, affording more time to organize attacks, though still constrained by limits on the ability to reenter the country after leaving. Atta and Marwan el Shehhi, for instance, applied to adjust their status from short-term tourists to longer-term vocational students for precisely this reason; as simple tourists, they couldn't legally go to flight school, get the training they needed to stage their attacks, and coordinate the activities of other terrorists.

Even more attractive for potential terrorists is the next step up - lawful permanent residence (a green card), which affords almost complete freedom of action, without most of the restrictions that encumber visitors, not to mention illegal aliens. Eleven of the 48 terrorists since 1993 were permanent residents. Consider the case of Mahmud Abouhalima, one of the leaders of the first World Trade Center bombing, who became a legal resident after falsely claiming to be an agricultural worker, allowing him to qualify for a green card as part of the big illegal-alien amnesty passed by Congress in 1986. It was only after he became a permanent resident that he was able to come and go freely and make several trips to Afghanistan, where he received the terrorist training he ultimately used in the 1993 attack. Had he been prevented from receiving a green card he would not have been able to leave the United States and then return as a trained terrorist. His receipt of a green card thus greatly facilitated his terrorism and was an important factor in al Qaeda's being able to stage the attack.

The final step, the brass ring for terrorists, is citizenship. As a naturalized U.S. citizen, an immigrant becomes an American, one of us, able to work at any job, precluded from deportation, and enjoying the full protection of the Constitution. Six al Qaeda terrorists were naturalized U.S. citizens, including some of the worst. The recruitment of naturalized citizens is a conscious al Qaeda strategy. The San Francisco Chronicle quoted an Arabic-language newspaper account of a confession by naturalized citizen Khalid Abu al Dahab, described as "a oneman communications hub" for al Qaeda, shuttling money and fake passports to terrorists around the world from his California apartment. According to the Chronicle, "Dahab said bin Laden was eager to recruit American citizens of Middle Eastern descent." When Dahab and fellow terrorist and naturalized citizen Ali Mohammed (a U.S. army veteran and author of al Qaeda's terrorist handbook) traveled to Afghanistan in the mid-1990s to report on their efforts to recruit American citizens, "bin Laden praised their efforts and emphasized the necessity of recruiting as many Muslims with American citizenship as possible into the organization."

Every time a foreign citizen tries to take another step up the staircase toward citizenship, the immigration officer assessing the application needs to approach his task with America's security foremost in his mind. Which kind of organization is more likely to instill that concern - one whose explicit mission is security or one devoted solely to distributing immigration "benefits," which will quickly become beholden to immigration lawyers and ethnic pressure groups? It's not hard to decide.

Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Visiting Fellow at the Nixon Center, and an NRO contributor.