It's Time to Plug Our Leaky Borders

By Mark Krikorian on September 1, 2001

City Journal, Autumn 2001


The September 11 massacres have made tightening America's borders an urgent priority. The 19 terrorists appear to have obtained visas from U.S. consulates overseas and entered the country legally—as tourists, business travelers, or students—and the perpetrators of many other terrorist acts on American soil, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, have also come here legally. To prevent future attacks, the nation must dramatically overhaul the lax way it approaches immigration. Doing that will require screening foreigners who want to enter the country more carefully when they apply for visas overseas, scrutinizing them closely at the border itself, and monitoring them systematically once they are inside the country.

Citizens of countries other than Canada and certain developed countries in East Asia and Europe must get visas before they can enter the U.S., and the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs does a remarkably poor job of deciding who gets—or doesn't get—those visas. The official responsible for visas, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Mary Ryan (a 1993 Clinton appointee), has fostered a service culture, in which visa officers treat foreign applicants, rather than the American people, as their primary "customers." On her watch, keeping the foreign customers happy—not keeping them waiting, in other words—became the main goal, instead of making sure that the wrong people don't get into the country. This ill-conceived approach pressures officers to speed things up, resulting in the approval of too many dubious applications. Management needs to reorder its priorities—fast.

But such a shift in priorities won't be much help in keeping out terrorists if there aren't enough people to do the work. Last year, some 900 foreign-service officers overseas, assisted by 2,500 foreign nationals, handed out 7.1 million visas, up 15 percent from 1995 and more than triple the number 30 years ago, when most visas went to citizens of Western European countries and Japan. Even if their priorities were straight, consular officers often have no more than a few minutes to glance over each application.

Making matters worse, the growing workload has meant that all junior foreign-service officers must handle applications for a year or more, turning a serious responsibility into a distasteful rite of passage for rookies. Wives of foreign-service officers often take visa-processing jobs, too. The work can be mind-numbing: officers hear the same fabrications week after week, month after month—the desert-dwelling applicant is going on a skiing trip to Virginia or heading to Wichita on vacation, since he's "heard it's beautiful." Though many junior consular officers are conscientious, most would rather be writing political reports or negotiating with foreign officials than listening to far-fetched stories. Scrutiny under such conditions is lax.

To leave the responsibility for issuing visas with the State Department is a bad idea. What diplomat would want to give visa applicants a hard time or turn them down, when his mind-set is to cultivate friendly relations? To make it harder for terrorists to get into the country, we should transfer visa responsibilities to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The INS should create a specialized visa corps, with representatives in consulates around the world, answerable not only to the local ambassador but also to INS headquarters in Washington—and ultimately to the new director of homeland security, Tom Ridge. The granting of visas needs to become a decently paid job that qualified, interested people sign up for from the start. Visa officers should be respected, trained professionals, insulated, to the extent possible, from political pressure.

Preventing terrorists from getting visas to enter the United States requires the right tools, both technological and legal. Here, too, there's lots of room for improvement. The primary instrument today for flagging potential terrorists is the Consular Lookout and Support System (CLASS), a "watch list" of 5.5 million suspect people. A watch list, to be useful, needs to be based on up-to-the-second, detailed intelligence. Absurdly, the consular service does not have access to the FBI's criminal database—though after September 11, born-again border-security enthusiasts in Congress are falling over one another to fix this problem.

Based solely on names, rather than on a biometric identifier like a fingerprint scan or an iris scan, CLASS is not nearly as effective as it could be. A more terrorist-proof overseas visa process would start by scanning each applicant's fingerprints and storing the prints in a computerized database that every official involved could access. To guard against a terrorist traveling under someone else's identity, as may have happened with the September 11 murderers, visa holders would then have their fingerprints scanned again when they enter the United States to guarantee that they matched the original prints. This innovation would be costly, to be sure, but the technology is already available. Officials have been scanning fingerprints along the Mexican border for several years now.

New legal tools are even more essential than technological ones for keeping out terrorists. We must make it easier to exclude people based on their ideology. Currently, the law makes it extremely difficult to turn down a visa applicant based solely on his "beliefs, statements, or associations, if such beliefs, statements, or associations would be lawful within the United States." For instance, to prevent a terrorist sympathizer who, say, publicly cheers the murder of Americans but who hasn't yet (as far as we know) planned assaults, from getting a visa, a consular official would have to bring the case to the secretary of state, who in turn would personally make the decision and then report it to four congressional committees. As a practical matter, that means that such ideological exclusion very rarely happens. Visa officials should have the immediate power to deny entry to all those who spew hatred of America or who belong to organizations that express enmity to the United States. We should not admit people who wish us harm.

The second front in preventing terrorist infiltration is the border itself. INS and customs inspectors man the "ports of entry," where people traveling by air, land, or sea legally enter the country. The Border Patrol and Coast Guard take care of the territorial stretches between those entry points, where no one is supposed to cross.

The necessity to make ports of entry more secure is acute. The number of people coming and going is staggering. Last year, more than half a billion people entered at legal checkpoints. Close to half of those were returning U.S. citizens. But the enormous number of foreign visitors is growing. The land crossing points in particular have too few inspectors and too few lanes to handle so many people and cars and still be security-conscious. Until the clampdown on September 11, cars and trucks often got through without scrutiny, making it easy for an Islamist terrorist to slip into the country from Canada or Mexico.

Solving this problem is simple: hire more inspectors and build more inspection lanes at crossing points. Immigrant smuggling through ports of entry, using fake papers or hiding in secret compartments, came to a near halt when security along the borders tightened after the terrorist attack. True, inadequate staffing and infrastructure did cause long waits. But additional inspectors and lanes would speed things up while maintaining the heightened level of security.

Intensifying scrutiny at border crossings doesn't take care of another security problem: the INS doesn't know whether the visa-bearing foreign visitors whom they admit ever leave the country after official permission to be here runs out. There's currently no system for tracking visa holders who depart by land. The system for tracking departures by air—which is how many terrorists would travel—is a bad joke.

Here's how it works (or, in truth, doesn't): the foreign visitor, when he arrives, fills out a two-part form with his name, passport number, destination, and so on, and hands one part to the U.S. immigration inspector on arrival. He's supposed to give the other half to the flight attendants when he flies back home, and they're supposed to send it on to the INS.

The opportunities for terrorists to exploit this slapdash arrangement are legion. Airlines often don't collect the forms or bother to give them to the INS. Visitors may enter by air but leave by land. The system is so dysfunctional that the INS's own statistics division considers any departure data it receives these days to be worthless. Since the data show that millions of people have not left, even though most of them really have, it's impossible to pick out the genuine overstayers—estimated to number 3 million, among whom may be many threats to the nation's security.

Congress has been aware for some time of the need to overhaul this mess. The bipartisan U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, headed by the late Barbara Jordan, called seven years ago for a computerized system that would track all arrivals and departures by air, land, and sea. Congress's 1996 immigration bill directed the INS to develop such a system. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) argued for it with eerie prescience: "We clearly need to have better security [on the border] to reduce the threat of terrorism and drug smuggling and alien smuggling." Unfortunately, border-state chambers of commerce, championed by then-senator Spencer Abraham (now secretary of energy), defeated the requirement, because they feared it would create interminable border traffic jams. But a technologically sophisticated system, adequately staffed, need not impede traffic at all.

The situation isn't any more secure along the vast stretches of territory between the ports of entry. On the Mexican border, we've beefed up the Border Patrol to 8,000 or so agents, an average of less than one per mile on any given shift. But more troubling, only a few hundred agents patrol the vast Canadian border, where Islamist terrorists are more likely to slip into the country from the sizable Canadian Muslim communities that can provide them with cover. We clearly need at least to triple the size of the Border Patrol.

The final challenge lies inside the country. Not only does the federal government have no idea whether foreign visitors have left when their visas expire; it also has no idea where foreigners are while their visas are still valid.

Tracking tourists and business travelers would be almost impossible. But tracking the nearly 2 million foreigners residing here for extended periods, affiliated with some American institution responsible for their whereabouts, is both possible and desirable. Our open society has made only the most perfunctory attempt to keep an eye on long-term foreign students and workers while they're here—so perfunctory, in fact, that at least one of the September 11 terrorists entered the country on a student visa but never showed up for a single class, without setting off any alarms anywhere.

Here, too, Congress has not been entirely asleep. The 1996 immigration law mandated the INS to develop a computerized tracking system for foreign students, to replace the current paper-based system. Unfortunately, it hasn't gotten beyond the initial stage, largely because many universities have ferociously opposed it, considering it discriminatory. Implementation is likely to speed up after September 11. But the system, once it is operative, isn't designed to track the temporary workers and trainees and intra-company transferees who come into the country every year—and it should be expanded to do so.

The country also needs to monitor more closely permanent residents—legal immigrants, with "green cards," who eventually become eligible for citizenship. Several past terrorist attackers have been legal immigrants. In 1940, as a homeland security measure, Congress passed a law requiring all non-citizens living in the United States to register annually their whereabouts with the INS by postcard. The INS dropped this requirement in 1981, and immigrants today only have to notify the INS of a change of address—which they often don't do. We need to revive annual notification, using more sophisticated technology than postcards. Perhaps a computerized system that would allow employers to verify the legal status of new hires would provide the INS with the needed ongoing updates of non-citizens' whereabouts.

We must maintain our ability to deport potential terrorists with a minimum of legal hassle. A 1996 anti-terrorism law allows deportations of terrorist suspects based on secret evidence—evidence that, if revealed, would compromise intelligence sources and law-enforcement methods. Officials have mainly used the law to kick out Islamic fundamentalists, and an array of Muslim groups have condemned the secret-evidence provision. In pursuing the Muslim vote, both parties campaigned against the practice in last year's presidential race. Earlier this year, Congressman David Bonior (D-Mich.) sponsored a bill to prohibit this essential security tool. Despite its 100 co-sponsors, including Democrats Barney Frank and Maxine Waters and Republicans Peter King and Henry Hyde, the bill is stalled. It should stay that way.

What about the number of people we admit? There's a compelling pragmatic reason for reducing immigration, at least for a time, in the wake of September 11. The INS simply cannot undertake the necessary reform and expansion while processing hundreds of thousands of new immigrants, foreign students, and workers each year. The General Accounting Office reported in May that applications for new green cards, naturalizations, and other immigration benefits have increased 50 percent over the past six years, and the backlog has quadrupled to nearly 4 million.

Limiting legal immigration to the spouses and minor children of American citizens, plus some genuine Einsteins and authentic refugees, and lowering the current caps (or placing caps for the first time) on various student and worker visas, would provide breathing room for the INS—and the consular service, if it remains in the visa-granting business—to get up to speed and fulfill their key roles in homeland defense. To reassure critics who see this as a ruse to reduce immigration permanently, lawmakers could decree that cutbacks in immigration levels would expire after several years.

Whatever one thinks of the debates over immigration's economic, fiscal, demographic, and social consequences, it's important to face up to the security implications of inviting into the United States large foreign-born populations, especially Muslims. Muslim immigrant communities can become the sea within which, as Mao might have said, terrorists swim. As a New York Times reporter wrote about Paterson, N.J., "The hijackers' stay here also shows how, in an area that speaks many languages and keeps absorbing immigrants, a few young men with no apparent means of support and no furniture can settle in for months without drawing attention." It's no longer unthinkable that the country might move toward some kind of national-origins quota system, as it had in place until the mid-sixties, to curtail Muslim immigration, though this would be a blunt instrument, keeping out the many law-abiding Muslims as well as the Islamist fanatics.

You might think everybody would embrace the idea of strong borders—but no. Libertarians see borders solely as obstacles to liberating flows of commerce and labor. For the multicultural Left, borders are the way a homogeneous society marginalizes and excludes the culturally strange. An array of special-interest groups have many reasons for opposing strong borders too. If we take the safety of Americans seriously, we cannot let these voices dissuade us from protecting ourselves.

No steps we take to improve border and visa controls will catch all malefactors, of course. But improvements like those outlined here, expensive as they doubtless would be, would help alert us to large conspiracies like the September 11 attacks. If consular officers or border inspectors had identified only a few of the conspirators, the entire deadly plot most likely would have unraveled.