Playing Games with Security: Taking Two Steps Back for Every Step Forward on Immigration

By Mark Krikorian on August 18, 2004

National Review Online, August 18, 2004

Last week's big immigration story was Asa Hutchinson's announcement of new powers for border-patrol agents to remove illegal aliens. Sounds good, right?

Well, not exactly.

The event - accompanied by a press conference and Page 1 story in the New York Times - was unfortunately just more evidence of this administration's continued distaste for immigration control as a tool for achieving homeland security.

This is so for at least three reasons:

Sizzle, but No Steak
The new powers just aren't that big a deal. True, the border patrol will soon be able to exercise "expedited removal" for certain illegal aliens, starting later this month. This means that, unless an illegal can demonstrate a "credible fear" of persecution if returned home, he won't be fed into the immigration-court system and will more quickly be removed from our country. The alternative, given limited detention space, has been to let the illegal loose with a court date and hope he shows up - which he doesn't.

Immigration inspectors at airports and seaports have had this power for more than seven years and have used it to some modest effect. So far, so good.

But the new rules will apply only to non-Mexican and non-Canadian illegals - a minute fraction of the illegal flow. And only to those caught within 100 miles of the border. And only if they've been in the United States for no more than two weeks. And the new procedure will be applied, at first, only in the Tucson and Laredo areas. With all these carve-outs, it will be surprising if this accelerated process is applied to more than a few hundred illegals a year.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
The announcement of the new border-patrol authority was coupled with border-loosening measures. For many years, Mexicans seeking to shop or visit relatives in border areas in the U.S. have been able to get border-crossing cards (informally known as "laser visas"), which are multiple-entry permits good for travel within the border region for visits of less than 72 hours. The new policy will allow visits of up to 30 days at a time - allowing Mexicans, in effect, to live in the U.S. indefinitely, so long as they go home once each month. The motivation for the new rule is clear from the press release: "This decision was closely coordinated between Secretary for Homeland Security Tom Ridge and Mexican Secretary of Government Santiago Creel." No kidding.

To be fair, the new laser-visa time period doesn't loosen things all that much, since the time limit is already entirely fictitious. The new, high-tech Border Crossing Cards - whose whiz-bang features gave rise to the "laser visa" nickname in the first place - are almost never run through a scanner when the bearer enters the United States, so there is literally no way to know whether the person has been here three days or thirty days or thirty years. About the only time the card is scanned is when the border inspector has reason to think there's a problem - because to scan everyone's card would slow traffic.

And the laser-visa change wasn't the only border-loosening measure announced last week. Immigration officials announced Thursday that they will now ignore "minor immigration irregularities" in deciding whether visitors from certain developed nations should be admitted. In other words, if a person overstayed his visa during his last visit, the inspector can let him in anyway - like, oh, Mohammed Atta, who was admitted at the Miami Airport in 2001 despite having overstayed on his prior visit to the U.S.

Political Response
As if all this weren't bad enough, the new border-patrol policy appears to have been dreamed up solely in response to political concerns. After all, if expedited removal of non-Mexican illegals is such a good idea (as opposed to just waving them into the country, which is still happening as you read this), why was it not ordered until nearly three years after 9/11? Why wait until August 10, 2004? Well, because Rep. Tom Tancredo had a news conference scheduled for August 11, 2004, to release previously unpublished statistics on third-country illegals caught on the Mexican border - including 122 Pakistanis in the first nine months of this fiscal year.

The furor over the border patrol's "catch and release" policy for non-Mexican illegals (known in the jargon as OTMs - "Other Than Mexican") has been growing, with increasingly widespread stories of Middle Eastern men sneaking across the border. It reached a fever pitch with the July arrest of a Pakistani woman carrying a South African passport after she crossed into Texas and was boarding a plane for New York.

The pressure on the administration to do something, anything, became intense. The co-chairmen of the U.S. House Border Caucus, Texas Republican Henry Bonilla and Democrat Solomon Ortiz, sent a letter demanding that OTMs be detained. A group of twelve other Republicans, led by the redoubtable Tancredo, did the same.

When combined with the heightened terror alert based on threats to financial targets in New York and Washington, and the uproar in southern California over the cancellation of an immigration-enforcement initiative owing to complaints from advocacy groups, the administration had to propose something that seemed pro-enforcement, and this was the smallest thing they could come up with.

The new border-patrol powers aren't a bad thing - they're just ridiculously overdue and inadequate, offered almost with apologies and only in response to political pressure. I'd have a lot more confidence in the federal government's commitment to protecting my children's lives if these measures had been put in place on September 12, 2001 - or, better yet, on September 10 - and if they were part of a comprehensive, unfettered effort to gain control over a chaotic immigration system. As it is, they are merely part of our Potemkin-village immigration system, designed to give the false impression that we're playing defense, as well as offense, in our struggle against militant Islam.

Mark Krikorian is Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies.