The Half-Baked Immigration Response to 9/11

By Mark Krikorian on September 10, 2021

National Review, September 10, 2021.

The 9/11 attacks were, at their heart, a failure of our immigration system. The 9/11 Commission staff report on the killers’ exploitation of immigration and border weaknesses (which the report called “terrorist travel”) started with these words: “It is perhaps obvious to state that terrorists cannot plan and carry out attacks in the United States if they are unable to enter the country.”

As a result, a wide variety of steps were taken in the wake of 9/11 to make it harder to violate immigration laws. But because any tightening of our system intended to exclude or catch terrorists will inevitably do the same for all other immigration lawbreakers, powerful interests opposed these measures, leaving many of the initiatives stalled or unfinished until today. A few examples:

The 9/11 Commission recognized the importance of a secure system of identification and advocated federal standards for state driver’s licenses, the foundation of our decentralized national ID system. (The 19 hijackers had nearly 30 driver’s licenses.) Congress followed through and passed the Real ID Act in 2005, preserving the right of states to issue any kind of license they wanted, but setting out common-sense minimum standards for any state ID that would be accepted for federal purposes (like boarding an airplane).

The deadline for the law — the date after which deficient state licenses would no longer be accepted — was originally supposed to be 2009. It’s been continually postponed, with the latest “deadline” set for May 2023. Among other things, that means illegal aliens (like five of the hijackers who were visa overstays) can still board airplanes if they can get a license from a state that issues them to illegals.

Another post-9/11 initiative recommended by the 9/11 Commission and mandated by Congress is an electronic entry-exit tracking system, a check-in/check-out mechanism for foreign visitors. The good news is that “check-in” part has improved immensely over the past two decades. The bad news: There’s still no meaningful check-out system, and if you don’t know who’s left you can’t know who’s still here illegally as a visa-overstayer.

Congress has re-mandated an exit-tracking system eight more times, by my count, and it still doesn’t fully exist. In fact, President Obama’s first DHS Secretary, Janet Napolitano, brazenly told Congress she just didn’t consider it a priority. Visa overstays as a share of new illegal immigration are probably down, what with limits on air travel and Biden’s border disaster, but that will change soon enough, and we remain unprepared.

Another weakness identified by the 9/11 Commission was student visas — tracking both what foreign students were studying (did they switch from accounting to nuclear engineering?) but also whether they showed up for class at all. One of the hijackers — Hani Hanjour — used a student visa to enter the country but never even pretended to visit the school he was supposed to attend, and no one followed up or was even aware of it.

To address this, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) was set up as part of ICE. Despite ICE’s fearsome reputation, SEVP is, in the words of my colleague David North, “the sleepiest and least demanding of all the migration-control agencies”. It has a severe case of clientitis, exercising little meaningful oversight or discipline over the schools raking in foreign tuition or foreigners buying access to the United States.

Finally, something we’ve refrained from doing for two decades because of 9/11, but may resume as memory fades. From 1986 to 2000, Congress passed seven amnesties, granting green cards to a total of close to six million illegal aliens, with about half coming from the big 1986 law. The capstone in this series of legalizations was supposed to be a comprehensive amnesty deal, which President George W. Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox discussed during the latter’s visit to Washington early in Bush’s term. Fox had barely returned home from his visit when the planes slammed into the Twin Towers, dooming the amnesty push.

But only for a few years. Our political and business and media class wouldn’t give up, so Bush made a full-court press for amnesty in his second term, and Obama did likewise. Their efforts failed because of the lasting conviction that an insecure immigration system means an insecure nation.

The benefit of amnesty to malefactors isn’t hypothetical. Mahmud “The Red” Abouhalima was an Egyptian illegal alien driving a cab in New York when he fraudulently got a green card from the 1986 amnesty by posing as a farmworker. Only with that newfound freedom to travel was he able to go to Afghanistan for terrorist training, equipping him to help lead the first World Trade Center attack in 1993.

Perhaps as early as next week, Democrats in Congress will test whether the memory of 9/11 has faded enough to allow them to pass the biggest illegal-alien amnesty in history hidden in the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill. Maybe they’ll call it the Mahmud Abouhalima Bill.

Edmund Burke said, “Example is the school of mankind, and they will learn at no other.” We seem to be forgetting the lesson that immigration security is national security, raising the possibility that we’ll need to be schooled again.