The San Diego Union-Tribune, November 26, 2002
One approach frequently suggested to protect our country from Muslim terrorists is simply to bar immigrants, tourists and students from Muslim countries.
A recent poll sponsored by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and the German Marshall Fund of the United States found considerable support for this approach, favored by 79 percent of the public and by 40 percent of opinion leaders.
But there are two problems with this, one practical, the other ideological.
The practical problem is that barring arrivals from Muslim countries just wouldn't screen out terrorists. As it is, applicants from Middle Eastern countries formally listed as sponsors of terrorism - Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Syria - have long been subject to extra scrutiny, so instead, the Sept. 11 terrorists came from Muslim countries not on the official list of terrorist-sponsoring countries.
Now that we are focusing more scrutiny on most Muslim-majority countries, we are likely to see terrorists coming from non-Muslim countries with large and radicalized Muslim minorities - the Philippines, India, China and Russia.
In fact, the FBI in September warned of just such a development with regard to Russian citizens. Because of increased scrutiny of visitors from Muslim nations, al-Qaeda is said to have discussed "hijacking a commercial airliner using Muslim extremists of non-Arabic appearance," specifically "Chechen Muslims affiliated with al-Qaeda, but already present in the United States." The recent mass hostage-taking by Chechens in Moscow gives this warning added urgency.
And in the unlikely event we were to bar everyone from Russia, the Philippines, and other such nations, then the terrorists would almost certainly make greater use of Muslim citizens of western Europe and Canada - as with Zacarias Moussaoui and Richard Reid. And this is especially problematic, since visas are not currently required for citizens of these countries.
As it happens, since the Sept. 11 attacks, dozens of people holding citizenship in Germany, Spain, France, Britain and other European countries have been arrested for involvement in al-Qaeda terrorist cells.
The impossibility of excluding Muslim terrorists by barring citizens of specific countries would force someone pursuing this approach to recommend a religious test for immigration, which is clearly absurd.
And that points to the second objection to an immigration policy targeting Muslims, an objection based on principle; special exclusions for Muslim immigrants, even if they were possible, would be a throwback to the national-origin quotas of the 1920s, the elimination of which was the only positive aspect of the hapless 1965 immigration-law changes.
Focusing on Muslims is certainly sensible as triage, as a way to decide where to start enforcing the law, as the Justice Department is doing by tackling the pool of 300,000-plus deportation absconders by starting with the 6,000 or so from the Middle East. But constructing a long-term, Muslim-specific immigration policy would be contrary to American principles and politically unsustainable.
After all, we have effectively been at war with Iraq for more than a decade and yet gave green cards to more than 40,000 Iraqis from 1991 to 2000 - and not a single member of Congress has even suggested that we do otherwise.
So, what to do? We could attempt to preserve today's historically unprecedented level of immigration, and apply tighter security measures to all comers - but does anyone think the INS is now, or will be in the foreseeable future, capable of such a Herculean task?
No, the only realistic solution is to cut immigration across the board, regardless of the religion the immigrant claims to profess, and target our other security procedures at the smaller number of people arriving from abroad. Only in this way do we have any hope of limiting al-Qaeda's access to the United States. We fail to act at our peril.
This Knight-Ridder News Service piece also ran in: The Sun Journal (Lewiston, Maine), the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.), the Charleston (W.V.) Gazette-Mail, the Florida Times-Union, the Birmingham (Ala.) News, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press, and the Monterey County (Calif.) Herald.