Janice Kephart / January 20, 2012
In a speech in the magic Kingdom of Disney World, President Obama this week officially extended his Amnesty by Any Means program to those beyond the traditional boundaries of amnesty discussion – people outside the United States. One key point for immigration control is that visa interviews are being dropped for much of the world. The White House press release focuses on the economics of tourism while the State Department's announcement is scant on details of exactly who will be interviewed, from what countries, and under what process.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano are otherwise mute, and neither was with the president Thursday in Orlando for the roll-out. Only the president is talking. Why? Because Obama knows his latest immigration policy is a breeder program for more foreigners to qualify for amnesty; is bad for national security; and that once more the White House has usurped solid post-9/11 federal immigration changes, this one requiring visa interviews for near all categories of visas. This latest move requires the president to lead it, because it could require his credibility to take on Congress, who may finally be mad enough at the administration's rewriting of immigration law to do something about it.
How did the latest "amnesty breeder" come about? As I broke the story back in September, the State Department initially tried to get the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to agree to ending visa interviews for people from much of the world seeking to come to the U.S. (Under post-9/11 law, DHS is in charge of visa policy.) When that did not work, State pled not with the congressional committees of jurisdiction to change the law, but with tourism-happy senators who do not sit on committees focused on immigration law or security issues. Once the committees of jurisdiction got wind of State's attempts, those bills died. What are we left with? A desperate president once more throwing up his hands at a Congress which refuses to agree to amnesty and pre-9/11 border security standards, and thus decides to overturn the law himself.
Visa and border interviews were an integral part of our investigation on the 9/11 Commission – only two of 19 hijackers were interviewed for their visas. In addition, while there were opportunities to stop both World Trade Center pilots in secondary interviews at the border, that didn't happen. Instead, in late August 2001 a prospective hijacker (whom I discovered during my part of the investigation) was turned around at Orlando International Airport after an extensive secondary interview. The result? There were only four hijackers on the flight that was headed for either the White House or the Capitol on that fateful day in 2001. That plane was overrun by the passengers who knew their plane was headed for disaster, and gave their lives to stop the hijackers. I will never forget hearing from my colleagues their reaction to the audio tape of the hijacker pilot chanting in Arabic as he suicided the plane into a Pennsylvania field – "suicide the plane" was the command the hijackers were given if they believed they could not reach their destination.
We will never know whether that fifth hijacker turned around in Orlando due to that border interview would have changed history on 9/11, enabling the flight to make it back to Washington D.C. on 9/11, destroying of another of our most important political monuments. What we do know is that the single secondary interview prompted by two astute border inspectors in Orlando did determine how many hijackers the passengers had to fight on Flight 93 over Pennsylvania that day.
I doubt the president realizes the irony of his choice of Orlando to roll out a program severely reducing visa interviews. Rather, the president has consistently shown a disinterest towards knowing 9/11 facts or applying them to the border. In fact, much of what we advocated in assuring borders be more secure on the 9/11 Commission have been rolled back under a strategic plan not only to legalize those already here, but to bring more people here as well. While the president touts his plan as increasing tourism in the country – not requiring visa interviews for most of the world is a possible way to get there – he cannot claim, as he did this week, that he is promoting security.
There are multiple issues here. First, economic security is threatened beyond the happy-go-lucky tourism argument that dominated the president's speech. Inviting people as tourists from countries where the citizens for years have come to the United States for jobs to get away from poverty (Brazil and India) or a repressive regime that is openly not America's friend and whose people have been smuggled here illegally across both our northern and southern borders for years (China), is inviting a surge in visa overstays and potentially flooding a downturned economy with more foreigners illegally seeking American jobs. Visa overstays are illegal aliens, and thus eligible for amnesty. Viola! The president has another means to amnesty by any means.
Second, the more nefarious side of this issue is the value of the visa interview in vetting the true intent of persons seeking to come to the United States. This is especially for people from countries where there is a known terrorist connection (Iran, Yemen, Sudan, for example) or high espionage likelihood (such as China). Improving this system by using Skype-style interviewing in places that are dangerous or remote is certainly possible and perhaps more economically viable than requiring a physical location for a consular officer to conduct interviews. But opening more consular offices, as the president stated he is going to do in his Orlando speech, simply to dole out visas blindly without asking questions and reviewing behavioral cues is both extremely costly (State has been closing consular offices around the world for years due to cost) and begs the question of why bother with visas at all, if vetting is thrown to the wind? The whole reason for requiring visas is to require a form of vetting of the intent of the person applying – we are supposed to turn away, among others, those likely to become public charges, those with communicable disease, and those who pose a public safety risk. How can we know any of this if we don't ask any questions first?
State and DHS are refusing details. The president masked the terms of this new program by unveiling it at a child's playground. The administration is paranoid because they know what they are doing is bad for this country. And they know, too, that finally a piece of their Amnesty by Any Means program is about to get some close attention on Capitol Hill next week in congressional hearings. If Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), the highest ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who has a long history in scouring watchdog investigations, has his say, the administration may finally have some sweat on its brow over its border policies. Whether he has the pull to force the administration to change its stance, however, will depend on how much backup he receives from his colleagues. This Sen. Grassley's statement in reaction to the president's Mickey Mouse visa program:
"The president's proposal flies in the face of the law we've had on the books because of 9/11. Only two of the 19 hijackers were interviewed by consular officers, so Congress mandated that all visa applicants be interviewed, with very few exceptions. Once again, this administration is pushing the envelope and using their authority beyond congressional intent, allowing untold numbers of foreign nationals to bypass the in-person interview requirement, and risking national security in the process."
Mickey Mouse may well cover his ears during these hearings.