Feel Safer Yet? Making immigration an issue.

By Mark Krikorian on September 10, 2002

National Review Online, September 10, 2002

A year after the September 11 attacks, you would think our immigration system had significantly improved its ability to keep out those who want to kill our children.

You would be wrong.

To the conspiratorial mind, it would appear that Congress and the administration have been trying to tighten immigration controls just enough to placate public concerns over the threat posed by radical Islam on our shores, but not so much that immigration controls could actually work, since that would anger vocal political interests.

The problem, of course, is not conspiracy - it's schizophrenia. On the one hand, John Ashcroft and Tom Ridge, along with supporters in Congress such as George Gekas and Tom Tancredo, have been strong advocates of tighter immigration controls. At the same time, others in the White House - including, it seems, the Boss - along with allies in Congress such as Chris Cannon and Orrin Hatch are doing their best to gut border control altogether by promoting amnesty for illegal aliens and castrating immigration enforcement.

Both sides in the tug-of-war over immigration controls have enjoyed victories, but the open-borders crowd has been regaining the upper hand as public alarm at our vulnerability has faded and immigration nostalgia has reemerged, along with the narrow economic and political interests that reinforce it. And even the modest improvements that we've seen in immigration control give rise to questions. For example:

  • The two people with operational control over immigration - Assistant Secretary of State Mary Ryan (in charge of visas overseas) and INS Commissioner James Ziglar (in charge of enforcement at the border and inside the country) were removed this summer, potentially strengthening the hands of those genuinely interested in security. But why were people who viewed immigration as chiefly a customer-service matter able to keep their jobs for so long after 9/11?
  • In May, the president signed the "Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002," which, despite its grandiose name, is relatively modest in scope. Among its main features are a requirement that the INS's various databases be able to talk to each other (!) and that visas should contain a biometric identifier, such as a fingerprint. If you're surprised that Congress actually needed to mandate such commonsense measures in statute, then you'll love another measure in this law: the repeal of the requirement, passed by Congress at the behest of the travel industry, that foreign visitors be cleared through immigration and customs within 45 minutes. This border-security law, hailed as a great advance, in fact merely lifted some of the more ridiculous limitations on the INS's ability to do its job and mandated reforms that won't bear fruit for years, if ever.
  • Long-ignored immigration-control tools are being revived, but often at the expense of efforts that would deliver more bang for the buck. For instance, legal non-citizens have been required since the 1950s to notify the INS within 10 days of a change of address. The requirement was generally ignored until Ashcroft announced in July that it would again be enforced. The Justice Department should indeed know the location of non-citizens living among us, but given the INS's manifold woes, generating a huge new flow of paper for overwhelmed civil servants to process probably isn't the way to go about it.

Much more effective, but politically untouchable, would be to roll out the experimental system already developed by the INS that allows employers to verify a new hire's work eligibility. Though less comprehensive than attempting to track all changes of address, such a system would give the INS much more reliable information as to the daytime whereabouts of the large majority of aliens. Of course, it would also significantly limit illegal immigration, and thus is unacceptable to pressure groups that profit from loose borders - at the expense of national security, not to mention American taxpayers and the rule of law.

If the sporadic advances in post-9/11 immigration control have been less significant than they seem, the accompanying setbacks have been more significant, and potentially longer-lasting. Most disturbing has been the broad and varied push for a de facto illegal-alien amnesty. This campaign has many fronts: Efforts by some states to permit illegal aliens to get driver's licenses and in-state tuition at public universities; the spread of the Mexican government-issued "matricula consular," an illegal-alien identity card tacitly approved by our federal government and actively promoted by many banks and local governments; and ongoing efforts in Congress, accompanied by high-profile public pronouncements, to pass piecemeal amnesties such as Sen. Hatch's DREAM Act (S. 1291) and a provision known in the jargon as Section 245(i).

After September 11, the administration realized Congress would not pass the broad amnesty for illegal aliens that President Bush, with Mexican president Vicente Fox, had been actively working toward. So instead, the White House has opted for a creeping amnesty, subverting the very immigration-control measures unveiled with such fanfare. You can argue that the president doesn't need a vote to invade Iraq, but you can't argue that he doesn't need a vote to legalize millions of illegal aliens, and yet that is exactly what his administration and its allies in Congress are doing.

By sending the message overseas that we're not serious about border control, this de facto amnesty not only negates the new tools that are being forged - it also undercuts enforcement of current laws. Why should INS investigators vigorously pursue violators of immigration laws when the folks at the top are busy praising such lawbreakers and debating how best to reward them? Like the state trooper whose governor argues that drunk driving isn't really such a bad thing, INS agents in the current environment can't help but become demoralized.

Immigration control can make us safer, but only if it is pursued consistently and forcefully. The new INS commissioner should be someone with an unequivocal commitment to law enforcement and the experience to back it up. The last big amnesty, in 1986, awarded a green card to Mahmoud Abouhalima, the Egyptian cabbie who led the first World Trade Center attack. Talk of illegal-alien amnesties has to end.

And Congress needs to pass substantive measures that will actually promote security, such as (House immigration subcommittee chairman) George Gekas's SAFER Act, the provisions of which include making it a crime to overstay a visa (it's only a civil offense now, like jaywalking), and ending the ridiculous visa lottery, which is one of the primary vehicles of immigration from the Middle East.

The public recognizes that radical Islam has finally reached our shores, and that muscular immigration reforms must be part of our response. At some point, an enterprising politician will figure this out and benefit immensely. But in the meantime, much of the elite - Republican and Democrat - clings to a romanticized, archaic vision of open immigration. How many attacks will it take for them to wake up?

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