Peter Nunez: Preventing the Entry of Terrorists into the United States

By Peter Nunez on February 13, 2004

Testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives
Committee on International Relations
Subcommittee on International Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Human Rights

February 13, 2004

Statement of Peter K. Nunez
Board of Directors Chairman, Center for Immigration Studies

Thank you for inviting me to testify today on this critical topic relating to the threat posed to the United States by international terrorism. The tragic events of September 11, 2001, are but the most dramatic example of the porousness of our borders and ports of entry, and the absolute folly of the border security policies that have marked our approach to border issues for most of the past 40 years, since the rewriting of our immigration laws in 1965.

My perspective on the issues being examined by this hearing are the product of my experience as a federal prosecutor in the Southern District of California beginning in 1972 and extending through my service as the United States Attorney during the Reagan Administration, ending in 1988; by my service as the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Enforcement during the first Bush Administration from 1990 to 1993; and my current employment as a lecturer in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of San Diego, where I teach on Transnational Crime and Terrorism and the Politics of Immigration Policy.

As a federal prosecutor in San Diego, I was regularly involved in the prosecution of violations of our immigration, customs, and drug laws, which brought me into close contact with our federal border agencies, including the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Border Patrol, the Customs Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Part of my responsibilities as the U.S. Attorney was to coordinate the overlapping activities of these and other agencies.

As the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Enforcement, I was responsible for all the law enforcement activities of the Treasury Department components, including the Customs Service, the Secret Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, and the criminal investigations functions of the Internal Revenue Service. The Office of Foreign Assets Control, responsible for administering the various sanctions programs imposed on rogue nations by the United States, was also part of my office. During my tenure at Treasury, I oversaw the standup of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, a multi-agency anti-money laundering and financial crimes intelligence system. I also served as the Chairman of what was then called the Southwest Border Committee, which consisted of the Commissioners of Customs and INS and the Administrator of DEA, with the responsibility of coordinating all of the federal law enforcement activities along the southwest border with Mexico. I also presided over the initiation of Project NorthStar, a multi-agency coordinating mechanism on the U.S./Canadian border including the border law enforcement agencies in the United States and Canada. All of these duties have given me the opportunity to observe the difficulties we face as a nation in trying to enforce our laws along our borders to protect the American public from the horrors of illegal drugs, terrorists, and rampant illegal immigration.

This nation began to lose control of its borders following the passage of the 1965 amendments to the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act, which had the perverse affect of stimulating both legal and illegal immigration simultaneously. The end of the Bracero Program occurred at approximately the same time, as did the onset of the counter culture and the explosion of the use of illegal drugs, most of which were produced outside the United States and smuggled across our borders. None of the agencies responsible for the enforcement of our immigration or drug laws were prepared for the deluge of illegal acts that soon overwhelmed them, and Congress was slow to respond with the necessary manpower, equipment and other resources necessary to combat these evils. The result was that our borders were overrun, illegal drugs were easily available, and illegal immigration became a routine part of the American experience.

By the 1980's, it was clear that both our drug policies and our immigration policies had failed miserably, and efforts were undertaken by successive administrations and Congresses to turn the tide. Improvements were made in our drug laws and the agencies responsible for combating this problem, but it was a case of too little too late. As for the flaws in our immigration policy, Congressional action designed to end this debacle failed completely; the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, with its three-pronged approach of (1) employer sanctions, (2) enhanced border enforcement, and (3) an amnesty for millions of illegal aliens, not only failed to cure the problems it was designed to address, it indirectly led to even more immigration - both legal and illegal.

Employer sanctions failed completely as a deterrent to illegal immigration, due to the inherent weaknesses in the law as written, and also due to the considerable pressure applied to INS by pro-immigrant and pro-business special interests through political channels. Subsequent efforts in Congress to remedy the deficiencies in this law were defeated by those profiting from the immigration chaos that had resulted. Border security continued to be ignored into the 1990's, when Congress finally began to increase the size of the Border Patrol, doubling it from around 4,000 agents in 1993 to more than 9,000 by the late 90's. And approximately 2.7 million illegal aliens were given amnesty in the 5 years following passage of IRCA in 1986.

But during this same time Congress added to the problem by enacting amendments to the immigration laws in 1990 which have resulted in unprecedented increases in the number of immigrants allowed entry to the United States. We are currently experiencing the highest sustained period of immigration in our nation's history, further straining the resources of the INS. Interior enforcement - the term used to describe what used to be the routine enforcement of our immigration laws away from the borders - was almost completely abandoned by INS during the last 15 years, under intense pressure from the same political interest groups mentioned above. And state and local politicians have exacerbated the problem by instructing their police officials to either ignore immigration violations they discover, or refuse to cooperate with INS officials, or both, as they continue to cater to special interests at the local level.

The INS - never a model of efficiency or effectiveness - was now completely overwhelmed, and undermined by special interests intent on making sure that INS would never be able to perform its congressionally-mandated functions. Business interests dependent on an unending flow of cheap, exploitable, labor; immigrant groups intent on keeping the door open so that more of their relatives, friends, and countrymen would be allowed to enter; immigration lawyers who derive personal profit from the plight of immigrants; the politicians who rely on these interests groups for their continued reelection; all of these groups joined together to deprive INS of the resources and legal authority needed to implement the immigration laws in a coherent fashion.

As the United States struggled to deal with the problems of cross-border drug trafficking, illegal immigration, and the processing of record numbers of legal immigrants, along came yet another problem of epic proportions - international terrorism. The success of these groups in infiltrating the United States first became clear in 1993 with the first bombing of the World Trade Center, but became a sign of the complete disintegration of our border security apparatus after the tragic events of 9/11. Finally an event of unspeakable horror caught the attention of our elected leaders and has led us to begin the process of rebuilding a border security system designed to protect us from future catastrophe.

Certainly the creation of the Department of Homeland Security was a step in the right direction. Combining all of the agencies involved in border security issues - Customs, INS, and the Border Patrol - in one department should lead to enhanced enforcement at the border, and better coordination between agencies with similar but different missions and priorities. The omission from DHS of the FBI, or at least that part of the FBI that is the primary anti-terrorism component of our entire federal government structure, is odd, to say the least, given the overarching mission of DHS to protect us from terrorism, but that oddity does not detract from the positive aspects achieved by combining the border interdiction agencies.

And one note of caution regarding the possible advantages of combining these agencies into one department: the fact that these agencies are now all part of the same department does not automatically solve all of the problems experienced in the past when they were part of different Cabinet-level departments. After all, both the FBI and the INS were part of the same Justice Department on 9/11, yet the post 9/11 analysis demonstrated serious gaps in the sharing of information between these two Justice Department agencies. Moving boxes around on an organizational chart does not - by itself - create an environment of cooperation and information sharing. How DHS fulfills the expectations that it will share information internally between and among its constituent parts is yet to be demonstrated.

Further, with regard to the sharing of intelligence, this has proven to be a huge problem for law enforcement agencies in the past, and an even bigger problem when the sharing of information must include non-law enforcement agencies such as the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the Department of Defense, and the State Department, all of whom play some role in protecting us from future terrorist attacks. These are not frivolous issues, and the problems in sharing intelligence go well beyond the parochial nature of federal agencies. How this process is managed in the future will have much to do with how successful we are in preventing another 9/11.

It is my belief that you cannot approach the issue of protecting America from future terrorist attacks as an isolated issue, that it is necessary to consider the broader issue of border security to include terrorism, immigration enforcement, and drug trafficking as a whole. Because the same deficiencies that exist - at least along our borders and ports of entry - that would allow a terrorist to gain entry to the U.S. are the same deficiencies that allow for the entry of millions of illegal aliens and many thousands of pounds of illegal drugs every year. After all, if hundreds of thousands of illiterate, unskilled, uneducated peasants from the interior of various Latin American countries can successfully navigate the holes in our borders and ports of entry to successfully take up residence inside the United States and remain here indefinitely, what makes anyone believe that a more sophisticated, better financed, and dedicated member of a terrorist cell could not do the same thing? If international drug traffickers can successfully smuggle hundreds of thousands of pounds of cocaine, marijuana, heroin, amphetamines, and other illegal drugs into the U.S., why is it not equally likely that a terrorist group could successfully smuggle a few pounds or gallons of biological, chemical, or nuclear material into this country? How many illegal aliens stopped by local police for a traffic violation and released under a local policy which provides sanctuary for illegal aliens could be tomorrow's terrorist? Which student admitted on a temporary visa who overstays that visa, or in fact never shows up for school, will be the next terrorist to kill Americans?

It is my understanding that approximately 500 million people enter the United States each year (or more specifically, there are 500 million entries), and approximately 8 million containers are brought into the U.S. through our various seaports annually. This is indeed a formidable challenge to our Homeland Security authorities, but its size cannot and should not be the sole determining factor in how we protect ourselves from the threat of terrorism. We as a Nation must do what we have to do to protect ourselves - that must be our first priority. If there is a way to protect ourselves that minimizes the impact on the speed with which people and containers are admitted, that would be our preferred option. But we must finally abandon the notion that it is more important to allow people and containers to enter the U.S. quickly and easily than it is to protect ourselves from future terrorist attacks, increased availability of harmful drugs, and the demonstrably harmful effects of illegal immigration.

This country must remember that it is based upon the concept of the rule of law. We are a nation of laws - we must abide by the laws we have adopted to deal with the problems of immigration, drugs, and terrorism. It is not enough to pass laws in Congress or in the state legislatures and then ignore them because we are afraid of offending special interests or because of notions of political correctness. And there is no way a country can fight a war against terrorism when it ignores its borders, refuses to enforce its laws away from the borders, and provides sanctuary or informal immunity to those who have broken our laws by coming here illegally or staying beyond their welcome.

Since 9/11 we have paid a great deal of attention to the visa issuing process and to the creation of a system designed to keep better track of those we admit as non-immigrants. This is all well and good. But let us suppose that we are completely successful in that regard, and that we can implement a full-proof system for admitting only those that mean us no harm, and that we succeed in keeping track of those we admit to make sure they depart as scheduled. Of all of the many problems that need to be addressed, that is the easiest part, because all of those applicants for admission go through a controlled environment, from an overseas embassy or consulate, to a port of entry at an airport or seaport, where the physical process of inspection can be completely controlled. Technology is of its greatest assistance in this setting, and if we wish, can provide a very high degree of reliability and security.

So what alternative means of entry do terrorists look to if we close the door on them at the ports of entry and the visa process? As long as our land borders with Mexico and Canada remain as open as they now are, terrorists can enter the U.S. as easily as any of the hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens who regularly shred our land border security.

Canadian security officials have long-admitted that there are approximately 50 terrorist groups operating in Canada. The border between Canada and the Lower 48 states is 4,000 miles long, and was patrolled by 300 Border Patrol agents on 9/11 (now increased to 1,000 agents). Throw in the additional 1,000 mile border between Canada and Alaska and you have a huge hole in the dike.

Corruption in Mexico and along the U.S./Mexican border is so pervasive that international drug cartels operate with near-impunity in that environment. Are we so naive as to suspect that the right amount of money could not purchase the entry of a few terrorists from time to time?

And consider the thousands of miles of coastline that are virtually wide open; thousands of miles of Atlantic Coast; thousands of miles of Pacific Coast; thousands of miles of coastline around Hawaii and our island possessions. Once a terrorist enters any of these islands surreptitiously in the dark of night, he can then travel via airline to the mainland U.S. without passing through any immigration or Customs checks.

In short, efforts to strengthen our visa and passport control process should be a high priority, but we must recognize that our open borders will continue to make us vulnerable until we stiffen them to the maximum degree possible. And beyond a better border security apparatus we need to allow Homeland Security officials to restart their interior enforcement functions, free of political interference, and with the aid - compelled if necessary - of local law enforcement personnel. Anything that allows illegal aliens to avoid the consequences of their illegal acts should be eliminated; by reducing the ease with which those who have broken our laws can remain in place will enable us to provide a more secure homeland for all.

Peter Nunez is a former United States Attorney, Southern District of California (1982-1988), a former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Enforcement (1990-1993), and is now both a lecturer in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of San Diego and Chairman of the Board of Directors of at the Center for Immigration Studies.