Safety Through Immigration Control

By Mark Krikorian on April 24, 2004

The Providence Journal, April 24, 2004

OH GOD, you who open all doors, please open all doors for me, open all venues for me, open all avenues for me.

-- Prayer found in Mohammed Atta's luggage

Supporters of high immigration have tried to de-link immigration control from security. A week after the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings, the head of the American Immigration Lawyers Association said, "I don't think [9/11] can be attributed to the failure of our immigration laws." Even the "9/11 Commission" -- which in January held hearings on the immigration failures that had contributed to the attacks -- is devoting inordinate attention, as we saw the other week, to peripheral issues, such as who sent what memo to whom.

While ordinary people don't need hearings to know there's a link between immigration and security, a fuller understanding of the issue is necessary if we are to fix what needs to be fixed, and reduce the likelihood of future attacks.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said in October 2002:

"Sixty years ago, when we said, 'home front,' we were referring to citizens back home, doing their part to support the war front. Since last September, however, the home front has become a battlefront, every bit as real as any we've known before."

The reality of the home front isn't confined to the threat posed by Islamic terrorism. No enemy, whatever his ideology, has any hope of defeating America's armies in the field, and must therefore resort to what scholars call "asymmetric" or "fourth-generation" warfare: terrorism and related tactics, which we saw before 9/11 in the Mideast and East Africa, and which we are now seeing in Iraq. But the brass ring of such a strategy is mass killings of civilians on American soil.

Our objective on the home front is different from that faced by the military, because the goal is defensive: to block and disrupt the enemy's ability to carry out attacks on our territory. This will then allow offensive forces, if needed, to find, pin down and kill the enemy overseas.

So the burden of homeland defense is not borne by our armed forces but by agencies seen as civilian entities -- mainly, the Department of Homeland Security. And of the DHS's many responsibilities, immigration control is central. The reason is elementary: No matter the weapon or delivery system -- hijacked airliners, shipping containers, suitcase nukes, anthrax spores -- terrorists are needed to carry out the attacks. And those terrorists have to enter and operate in the United States. In a very real sense, the primary weapons of our enemies are not the inanimate objects at all but, rather, the terrorists themselves, especially in the case of suicide attackers.

Thus, keeping the terrorists out, or apprehending them after they get in, is indispensable to victory. In the words of the administration's July 2002 "National Strategy for Homeland Security":

"Our great power leaves these enemies with few conventional options for doing us harm. One such option is to take advantage of our freedom and openness by secretly inserting terrorists into our country to attack our homeland. Homeland security seeks to deny this avenue of attack to our enemies and thus to provide a secure foundation for America's global engagement."

Our enemies have repeatedly exercised this option of inserting terrorists by exploiting weaknesses in our immigration system. A Center for Immigration Studies analysis found that nearly every element of the immigration system has been penetrated by the enemy. Of the 48 al-Qaida operatives who have committed terrorist acts here since 1993 (including the 9/11 hijackers), a third were here on various temporary visas, another third were legal residents or naturalized citizens, a fourth were illegal aliens, and the rest had pending asylum applications.

Nearly half of the total had, at some point or another, violated immigration laws.

An immigration system designed for homeland security, therefore, needs to apply to all stages in the process: issuing visas overseas, screening people at the borders and airports, and enforcing the rules inside the country. Nor can we focus all our efforts on Mideasterners and ignore people from elsewhere; that may make sense in the short term -- as triage, if you will -- but in the longer term we need comprehensive improvements, because al-Qaida is adapting. The FBI has warned local law enforcement that al-Qaida is already exploring the use of Chechen terrorists, people with Russian passports who won't draw our attention if we're focusing mainly on Saudis and Egyptians.

None of this is to say that there are no other weapons against domestic terrorist attacks. We certainly need more effective international coordination, improved intelligence gathering and distribution, and special military operations. But in the end, the lack of effective immigration control leaves us naked in the face of the enemy.

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