Our Immigration Policies Still Put Us at Risk in a Post-9/11 World

Brushbacks, Proxies, and Connecting the Dots

By W.D. Reasoner on March 19, 2012

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W.D. Reasoner (a pseudonym) is a retired government employee with many years of experience in immigration administration, law enforcement, and national security matters.


The national and international news was filled for several weeks with stories about Iran’s threat to close the Strait of Hormuz (and with it, a key maritime oil route) in response to enhanced sanctions against it by the United States and the European Union — sanctions engendered by the Iranian theocracy’s continued pursuit of nuclear production capabilities — and the United States response that we will not under any circumstances permit closure of the Strait.

Despite our country’s global reach, because we Americans tend to be somewhat insular in nature, there’s every reason to believe a great many of us haven’t paid much attention to the story (particularly since we’ve entered the electoral season in earnest, with its many diversions, candidate gaffes, etc.), even though it, combined with the recent ethno-religious atrocities in Nigeria’s oil-producing northern region, has already affected us through rising prices at the gas pumps.

But the situation has taken a sinister turn recently, and the war of words has intensified to worrying levels.

First came congressional testimony on January 31 from Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper and Director of Central Intelligence David Petraeus (former commander of U.S. armed forces in Iraq, and then Afghanistan) that “some Iranian officials — probably including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei ... are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived U.S. actions that threaten the regime.” (emphasis supplied)1 This was a startling admission, coming as it did from officials who are members of an administration that claims that homeland security is better today than it has ever been. One could almost hear the collective gasp of dismay at Department of Homeland Security (DHS) headquarters when the statement was made public.

The next shoe to drop came from Leon Panetta, present Secretary of Defense (and former holder of Petraeus’ job as Director of Central Intelligence). In an interview with respected columnist and intelligence expert David Ignatius that was revealed on February 2, he asserted a “strong likelihood” that Israel would bomb Iranian facilities in “April, May, or June”.2 Mr. Panetta’s remarks were even more startling than those made by U.S. intelligence officials in late January. Pundits and journalists had a field day with this revelation, speculating at great length about why Panetta would choose to make such a statement — particularly one so detailed as to timing and intent about the plans of one of our closest allies. Fran Townsend, former U.S. Homeland Security Advisor, may have had it right when she described it as a “brushback pitch” in an interview with Anderson Cooper on CNN.3 In baseball, when a batter crowds the plate, a pitcher will occasionally throw a fast, hard, high, and inside pitch that whistles past the batter’s head, not with the intention to hit him, but to drive him away from the plate and give the pitcher enough maneuvering room to strike him out. In this scenario, Panetta’s remarks were designed to drive the Israelis away from undertaking such a preemptive strike, and concurrently persuade the Iranians not to think of Israel and the United States as two sides of the same coin, as they have been wont to do in the past. And by deliberately leaving doubt as to whether Panetta’s remarks were authorized or an embarrassing misstep, it leaves the official voices of U.S. intelligence, Messrs. Petraeus and Clapper, to shrug their shoulders and tell their Israeli counterparts (should they be so naïve as to accept the explanation) that they should not be held to task for the Defense Secretary’s statements.

If Ms. Townsend’s assessment of the situation is accurate, it seems to have failed, at least in terms of driving a wedge in Iranian thinking where Israel and the United States are concerned. According to the February 3, 2012, edition of the National Post, “Iran’s supreme leader [Ayatollah Khamenei] threatened on Friday to retaliate against the West for sanctions, a day after a U.S. newspaper said defense secretary Leon Panetta believed Israel was likely to bomb Iran within months to stop it building a nuclear bomb.”4

But in the meantime, events have become, if anything, even more tense with the car-bombing attempts in mid-February on the lives of Israeli diplomats, suspected to have been carried out by, or on the instruction of Iranian authorities, in New Delhi, India, and Tblisi, Georgia. Israeli officials have pointed specifically to not only Iran but Hezbollah as likely culprits,5 and their resolve to take unilateral action against Iran appears strengthened despite U.S. shuttle diplomacy efforts by Clapper, and other military and intelligence officials to dissuade them. Ironically, although the risks are high for us as a nation and a people, we seem relegated to the role of pawns rather than key players in this high-stakes game.

But I’m an occasional contributor of articles to the Center for Immigration Studies, not the Foreign Affairs journal, so what has all of this to do with U.S. immigration policies? Everything. If Iran were to mount an attack on a domestic target here in our homeland, it would likely do so in one of these ways:

  • Using agents of the Quds Force, a shadowy arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) whose responsibilities include international operational activities and selective support of those terrorist groups and activities that further Iranian interests abroad;6
  • Using proxies with close ties to the Iranian regime, such as the primarily Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah (designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. government, pursuant to Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act);7
  • Using other, more independent “agents of opportunity” — likely disaffected minority Shiite Muslims from other countries in the region such as Tajikistan or Uzbekistan; or, quite possibly,
  • Using some combination of the above, with cells, sleepers, and cutouts who serve to effectively distance the masterminds and financiers (and therefore Iran itself) from those who will do the dirty work, making it very difficult in the aftermath of an attack for law enforcement and intelligence officers to discern who is responsible.

Any one of those scenarios requires agents and operatives to function inside of the United States to set up and carry out their strike. It is reasonable to assume that, if Iran is not bluffing — and there is a long history of Iranian state sponsorship of terrorism throughout the globe suggesting otherwise — then possibly its agents are already in place, quietly awaiting a mobilization order. If so, how would they have gotten here?

One possibility is by means of putative American citizens born in the United States to aliens with no permanent status in, or ties to, the country — but who under current interpretations of law are nonetheless entitled to a United States passport. Such persons may inherently in fact be hostile to American values and pose a clear danger to the United States (Anwar al Awlaki was but one such example), yet have the right to travel to and fro as they wish.8

Another very real possibility, one borne out by past incidents and experience, is through our present immigration policies, which favor vast in-flows of individuals, even from nations known to harbor, or provide an ambient environment for, a whole host of terrorist organizations and their affiliates.

With any numbers comes a certain amount of risk: small numbers engender small risks; large numbers, large risks. Most Americans would be surprised by the size of the flow of aliens that have continued to come into the United States from countries of special interest to our homeland security since 9/11. These numbers are discussed below, in two different contexts: first, for one year alone, federal fiscal year (FY) 2010;9 and then, for the entire decade, FYs 2001 through 2010.

FY 2010 Admissions

An assessment of even a small group of countries in and around the Middle East, shown in Table 1, reflects that in a single fiscal year (2010), over 300,000 citizens of those countries arrived and were admitted as non-immigrants or refugees.10

The list was derived from countries:

  • That have Shia Muslim populations, as does Iran (although in many of them, unlike Iran, the Shia are a minority surrounded by Sunni and other sects of Islam, often coexisting uneasily);
  • That sit in the vicinity across the Strait of Hormuz from Iran and are obliged to deal with it, more or less amicably, on a routine basis; and/or
  • That are known to have ongoing positive relationships with Iran; plus, of course,
  • Iran itself.


Table: Non-immigrant and refugee admissions for select countries, FY2010


Significantly, because the focus of this report is primarily Iran and its proxies, no attempt has been made to include on the list other countries whose citizens also pose a substantial threat to the United States, such as the Muslim nations in Northern Africa, ranging from Morocco to Egypt to the Sudan. Those figures would swell the non-immigrant and refugee admission numbers many times over what is reflected in these tables. What is more, the figures in Table 1 do not reflect individuals from those countries who obtained lawful permanent resident alien (LPRA) status in the United States in 2010. Those figures are captured in Table 2.11

Table: Persons obtaining Permanent Resident Alien status by certain categories for select countries, FY2010

At this juncture, it seems appropriate to speak in more detail about Table 2, which deals with lawful permanent resident alien numbers. Individuals may become LPRAs through a variety of means, among them: marriage to a U.S. citizen or someone who is already an LPRA; a familial relationship with a U.S. citizen or LPRA (often a son or daughter, or a parent, but even siblings); adjustment of status after being granted refugee or asylee status; and possession of certain skill sets entitling one to work and live permanently in the United States. There is even a “diversity” visa category, popularly referred to as the “visa lottery”, entitling individuals to apply for immigrant visas, ostensibly to “balance” an unfair tilt toward some countries and away from others in the number of immigrant visas issued.

In some categories — because the numbers are not limited by law, or are not oversubscribed within the quota system in those categories — the wait time until the visa is issued or the status granted is short. Inevitably such categories become subject to abuse or outright fraud for aliens impatient to live and work in the United States. Experience has shown that, where a category is ripe for abuse, terrorists are as likely as others to try and exploit it, for instance through sham marriages or phony paperwork documenting employment experience or skills that do not exist.

The lottery system is an example of political correctness run amok. The United States — year after year the most generous country on the globe in the context of migration in-flows — has created a program allowing even more aliens to enter the country, many if not most with minimal skills to offer, and few or no preexisting relationships to rely on in helping them to assimilate. It is also rife with fraud. In short, the program is a scoundrel’s dream.

Table 2 shows some of the categories in which abuse and fraud have traditionally been perpetrated by aliens in obtaining LPRA status.

Admissions for the Decade, FY 2001 Through 2010

While more than 300,000 admissions of aliens coming to our shores from these countries in 2010 may be a surprise, calculating those figures for the same set of countries during the decade 2001 through 2010, results in a staggering total, as can be seen in Table 3.12

Table: Combined non-immigrant and refugee admissions, plus lawful permanent resident alien status grants for select countries, during the decade of FY2001 to FY2010

All together, there have been well over 2.5 million admissions of aliens arriving on our shores from this small list of 16 nations — several of them postage-stamp sized, and many of them troubled by internal insurgencies or Islamic extremist groups willing to export their hate wherever they can.

It is noteworthy that during the decade that ended in 2010, there were nearly 290,000 admissions of Iranians who made their way to the United States, at a time when our two countries don’t even maintain diplomatic relations and we are still routinely referred to by the supreme leader and the president of Iran as “the great Satan.”

Similarly, Lebanon — home to designated terrorist organization Hezbollah, perpetrator of the 1983 Marine Corps Barracks bombing in Beirut, which killed 241 American servicemen — sent even more aliens to our shores, with almost 300,000 admissions.

If one were to expand the list to include arrival flows from other, equally problematic, countries whose citizens pose special concerns to the United States, such as Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Indonesia, and even Venezuela, whose leader, Hugo Chavez, maintains warm relations with Iran, the total would grow by many millions.

The size of these continued flows should be of concern to the American public because experience tells us that aliens coming to the United States to engage in terrorism or terrorist support do their best to blend into the ebb and flow of the millions of other aliens who come to the United States on an annual basis. Doing so provides them with “protective coloration” and manipulates weaknesses in our laws and policies to provide them a platform to stay, whether that is by exploiting our refugee and asylum programs through false claims, obtaining nonimmigrant student or specialty visas of one sort or another, or even simply arriving as tourists who on admission just disappear.

They have also been known to procure resident alien status by means of fraud, through sham marriages, use of false education and job credentials, etc. Again, it becomes a numbers game. Aliens know that the level of time and scrutiny that can be afforded to any one case is generally minimal.

Recent Trends

In the past year or so, there have been a number of popular uprisings in the Arab world that have led to the toppling of tyrannical regimes, some of which have in the past supported or given shelter to terrorist groups (a prime example being Muammar Gaddafi in Libya), and some of which were steadfast U.S. allies, such as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Western pundits have labeled these events an “Arab Spring”. It would be tempting for Americans to view these events in a purely euphoric light; to see them as a kind of Arabic equivalent of the triumph of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way”. But the picture is much more nuanced than that. It’s instructive to note, for instance, that in post-Mubarak Egypt, the Parliament is dominated by Islamist parties, among which the Muslim Brotherhood is considered “moderate”.13

It is also a mistake to always assume that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, as in the case of individuals and groups presently fighting the Assad regime in Syria. While the Western-educated Bashar al Assad, like his father, is undoubtedly a brutal tyrant and Syria under their grip has been an unrepentant supporter of terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, we should remember that in our zeal to oppose the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, we supported and armed a mujaheddin insurgency that gave birth to the Taliban and to al Qaeda.

For these reasons, we must be cautious in assuming that aliens from those countries no longer constitute a threat. The administration would have us believe that pre-admission and benefits screening procedures are robust. But even the most cursory survey of recent terrorism-related cases here in the United States strongly suggests otherwise:

June 9, 2011. CNN reports that the FBI identified one of several suicide bombers who killed African Union soldiers on a peace-keeping mission in Somalia to be a Somali residing in the St. Paul, Minn., area. The article goes on to state that at least 20 “Somali-Americans” from Minnesota have been documented so far as having traveled to receive terrorism training in Somalia from designated terrorist group Al Shabaab.14

July 18, 2011. The Los Angeles Times reports that “authorities are rescreening more than 58,000 Iraqi refugees living in the United States amid concerns that lapses in immigration security may have allowed former insurgents and potential terrorists to enter the country, U.S. officials said. The investigation was given added urgency after U.S. intelligence agencies warned that Al Qaeda leaders in Iraq and Yemen had tried to target the U.S. refugee stream, or exploit other immigration loopholes, in an attempt to infiltrate the country with operatives.”15

October 11, 2011. ABC News reports that the FBI and other federal agencies disrupted a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States. The plot, allegedly orchestrated by Iranian officials, was facilitated by a naturalized Iranian American named Manssor Arbabsiar, who solicited a Mexican drug dealer/informant to carry out the assassination in return for more than a million dollars.16

January 24, 2012. The Denver Post reports that the FBI took into custody an Uzbek refugee residing in the Aurora, Colo., area, while at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. The man is being charged with material support to a designated terrorist organization, the Islamic Jihad Union.17

February 17, 2011. ABC News and other media sources report that the FBI arrested Moroccan national Amine El Khalifi, a nonimmigrant visitor who arrived in 1999 and simply overstayed his nonimmigrant visa.18 El Khalifi was accused of plotting to suicide-bomb the U.S. Capitol. Reacting to the facts of the case as revealed after El Khalifi’s arrest, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee) stated, “Today’s arrest is a victory for our law enforcement community, but a failure of our immigration system. We have not learned the lessons of 9-11. Until we crack down on our immigration laws that allow terrorists to enter and stay in the United States, history will continue to repeat itself.”


There seems to be a disconnect in the administration’s thinking — an inability to fundamentally “connect the dots” in the way intended by the 9/11 Commission and to acknowledge, or even understand, that U.S. immigration policies have the capability to substantially strengthen, or to significantly undermine, our national security.

But these few cases are just the tip of the iceberg, where our visa- and immigration benefits-granting systems are concerned. To mix metaphors, those systems have more holes than the proverbial slice of Swiss we insert into a sandwich.

Janice Kephart, National Security Policy Director at the Center for Immigration Studies, and former border counsel to the 9/11 Commission, has written a more extensive (and different) list of similar, equally troubling cases in her December 2011 Memorandum for the Center, “Connecting the Dots: Administrative Amnesty and the Thousands of Watchlisted Terrorists Residing in the United States”.19

But despite the evidence suggesting that our immigration adjudicative systems need reform, the numbers for many countries of concern are trending up, not down, in the key areas laid out in the tables above. This appears to be because the mindset that immigration is legitimately a part of the country’s national security apparatus has degraded in favor of the pre-9/11 notion that immigration to the United States, whether legal or illegal, is benign; and that immigration law enforcement, especially in the interior of the country where most aliens reside, requires no more than a modicum of lip service — and only so much as is necessary to avoid disaffecting Middle America until the elections are over. The administration would have us believe that there is no security price to pay for this trend, but that remains to be seen.

In the meantime, I will go on waking up in the middle of the night from time to time, reflecting on our apparent national proclivity toward attention deficit disorder, and worrying about the old maxim that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

End Notes

1 http://articles.nydailynews.com/2012-01-31/news/31010655_1_al-qaida-nucl....

2 http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7397369n.

3 http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/bestoftv/2012/02/03/ac-israel-iran-impl....

4 http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/02/03/ayatollah-ali-khamenei-gives-fie....

5 See, for instance, the article dated Monday, February 13, 2012, by Laura Rosen of the Yahoo News blog The Envoy, entitled “Israeli diplomat wounded in India car bomb blast; second attack thwarted in Tbilisi”, http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/envoy/car-bomb-wounds-israeli-diplomat-india....

6 For a brief description of the Quds Force and the IRGC, see materials from the Global Security Organization, at http://www.globalsecurity.org/intell/world/iran/qods.htm.

7 Codified at 8 U.S.C. Section 1189.

8 See my March 2011 Backgrounder for the Center, “Birthright Citizenship for the Children of Visitors: A National Security Problem in the Making?” for additional discussion of this subject, at http://www.cis.org/birthright-citizenship-for-visitors.

9 A federal fiscal year begins on October 1 and ends on the last day of the following September. For instance, FY 2012 began in fact on October 1, 2011, and will continue through September 2012.

10 The source of the data used to compile Table 1 was the DHS Office of Immigration Statistics, Yearbook
of Immigration Statistics, 2010
: Temporary Admissions (Non-immigrants), Table 26 (Nonimmigrant Admissions (I-94 Only) by Region and Country of Citizenship: Fiscal Years 2001 to 2010), http://www.dhs.gov/files/statistics/
publications/YrBk10NI.shtm; and Refugee Arrivals, Table 14 (Refugee Arrivals by Region and Country of Nationality: Fiscal Years 2001 to 2010) http://www.dhs.gov/files/statistics/publications/YrBk10RA.shtm.

11 The source of the data used to compile Table 2 was the DHS Office of Immigration Statistics, Yearbook
of Immigration Statistics, 2010
: Immigrants, Table 10 (Persons Obtaining Legal Permanent Resident Status by Broad Class of Admission and Region and Country of Birth: Fiscal Year 2010 ), http://www.dhs.gov/files/statistics/publications/LPR10.shtm; and Refugees and Asylees, Table 17 (Individuals Granted Asylum Affirmatively by Region and Country of Nationality: Fiscal Years 2001 to 2010) http://www.dhs.gov/files/statistics/publications/YrBk10RA.shtm.

12 The source of the data used to compile Table 3 was the DHS Office of Immigration Statistics, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2010: Temporary Admissions (Non-immigrants), Table 26 (Nonimmigrant Admissions (I-94 Only) by Region and Country of Citizenship: Fiscal Years 2001 to 2010) http://www.dhs.gov/files/statistics/publications/YrBk10NI.shtm; Refugee Arrivals, Table 14 (Refugee Arrivals by Region and Country of Nationality: Fiscal Years 2001 to 2010) http://www.dhs.gov/files/statistics/publications/YrBk10RA.shtm; and Immigrants, Table 3 (Persons Obtaining Legal Permanent Resident Status by Region and Country of Birth: Fiscal Years 2001 to 2010) http://www.dhs.gov/files/statistics/publications/LPR10.shtm.

13 As recently as February 2011, FBI Director Robert Mueller and DNI Clapper testified before Congress that the Muslim Brotherhood supported terrorism, and that it had ties to elements within the United States; see http://www.investigativeproject.org/2581/fbi-chief-muslim-brotherhood-su....

14 http://articles.cnn.com/2011-06-09/world/somalia.suicide.bomber_1_shabaa....

15 http://articles.latimes.com/2011/jul/18/nation/la-na-refugee-terror-2011....

16 This case is particularly troubling because federal officials responsible for administering immigration benefits had at least three substantive opportunities to vet Arbabsiar: 1) when granted refugee or asylee status, 2) when applying for adjustment of status to become a permanent resident alien, and 3) when filing his petition to naturalize. See http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/us-iran-tied-terror-plot-washington-dc-dis....

17 http://www.denverpost.com/crime/ci_19803843.

18 For a brief discussion of the failings of U.S. authorities to substantively handle the problem of nonimmigrant overstays, see my blog, dated January 22, 2012, “Got Visas?” http://cis.org/reasoner/got-visas. Note particularly the section discussing Government Accountability Office reports related to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Counterterrorism and Criminal Exploitation Unit (CTCEU). http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/feds-arrest-suicide-bomber-us-capitol/stor....

19 http://www.cis.org/administrative-amnesty-and-terrorists.