Tags: U.S. | Wide | Open | Terrorists | Experts | Warn

U.S. Wide Open to Terrorists, Experts Warn

Monday, 17 September 2001 12:00 AM

The virtual breakdown of U.S. immigration controls, these experts say, will make it impossible for the Bush administration to effect the "homeland defense" that it is planning.

Though the United States does guard the nearly 2,000-mile border with Mexico, it stripped guards over the past two years from the Canadian border to the Mexican border, and now the 3,987-mile border with Canada is virtually undefended.

The Canadian border has been penetrated numerous times in recent years by terrorists as well as major drug-smuggling operations.

An investigation of immigration issues by United Press International published last month reported that there are 7 million to 9 million illegal aliens living in the United States whose whereabouts and activities are not known to the government.

About half those illegal aliens, perhaps 4.5 million people, came to this country on visas and then violated the terms of the visa or failed to leave the country. This is the highest percentage of illegal aliens within U.S. borders in the nation's history.

The government does not ascertain the background of millions of people to whom it grants visas, does not know whether they abide by the rules of the visas, and does not know when they leave, said Dan Stein, executive director of the anti-immigration Federation for Immigration Reform, or FAIR.

"The government has lost administrative control over the whole process," he said.

The 19 people with Arab names - all identified by the FBI as the hijackers who seized four passenger jetliners and used three of them in the terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon - all came from overseas. None had been identified as a U.S. citizen.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service is holding 49 people who may to be connected to the hijackers on charges arising from violation of immigration laws.

In several instances, the FBI disclosed student and tourist visa information on the hijackers that showed they were permitted to enter the United States for aviation training that prepared them to fly the Boeing airliners they commandeered.

"People have to wonder," Stein said, "how did these people get here? Overstaying visas, getting flight training at our schools to bomb our buildings. What is the thinking that folks like this are allowed to be in the country?"

On Sunday, Attorney General John Ashcroft said the Justice Department was preparing legislative proposals to tighten up immigration, but Justice Department representative gave no details except to say it would not affect President Bush's decision to devise a guest worker program.

But well before last Tuesday's terrorist attacks, Congress had demanded that the Immigration and Naturalization Service be completely reorganized. Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., chairman of the House committee that oversees immigration, had told the president that he would not back any new immigration legislation until the INS was revamped.

Members of his committee staff told United Press International that there was a backlog of 4.5 million applications for INS actions, from citizenship to changes in permanent-resident status.

Doris Meissner, the former Clinton immigration commissioner who presided over the snatching of young Cuban escapee Elian Gonzalez, said in a recent interview that the pressure to process this unprecedented flow of immigrants made it impossible for INS examiners to fully investigate the background of the applicants.

Stein said the problem begins overseas, where U.S. State Department officials are under enormous pressure to issue visas.

At the core of the problem is a vast disconnect of records and databases that means that the State Department is issuing visas without knowing whether the applicant is on a watch list or whether he has violated visa regulations on a previous visit.

Stein said former President Ronald Reagan's attorney general, William French Smith, "once said the whole U.S. documentary structure is built on a foundation of sand," and Stein said nothing, including several 1996 reforms, had changed that.

Citing the birth certificate as the fundamental document of citizenship, Stein pointed out that "all 50 states keep birth records in their own databases, most non-electronically and incompatible with any federal system.

"The federal immigration system, which would include naturalization documents, the various entries and exits, is not compatible with the State Department's system, and the State Department issues visas which may or may not be issued on legitimate passports. These agencies still don't talk to each other," Stein said.

Once a visa is issued, the immigrant presents himself to the INS for "inspection" at one of the thousands ports of entry across the United States at airports or along its borders and coasts.

The FBI is frantically trying to identify the ports of entry, visa status and activities of the 19 suspected hijackers and locate accomplices in the United States.

For instance, the FBI is checking reports that hijackers may have entered through tiny remote border crossings between Maine and Canada's Quebec province, or they can slip aboard crowded day ferries from Nova Scotia to Maine's Portland or Bangor.

But the INS computer system cannot readily identify the point at which a visa holder entered. It does not track how often the visa holder may leave and return on the same visa, and the INS does not keep track of visa holders in the United States or whether they violated the terms of the visas.

"You're often going to find people who have been out of status, repeatedly overstaying B-2s [tourist visas]," Stein said. He noted that "right before this operation, apparently some of these guys left the country and came back on clean B-1 or B-2 visas so they didn't have any "immigration problems.'"

When a foreign visa holder enters the United States, he fills out an "I-94" form. The immigration inspector gives the visa holder back a portion of the form as a receipt to surrender when he leaves the country.

"It's supposed to get matched with the entry form," said Stein, "but it doesn't get matched. The INS keeps them all in what amounts to shoe boxes. The INS is technologically in the dark ages. The record keeping is abysmal, and the State Department, frankly, isn't a whole lot better. "Consular offices have become so overwhelmed with trying to screen visa applicants, they have been shoving more and more of the adjustment of status problem onto INS. You now have people inside the United States, working for INS, adjusting people to green card status, who really don't have access to records of how these immigrants behaved before - when they came in on non-immigrant visas."

Stein said: "This is the reason you're looking at this morass right now with the FBI trying to sort out this out. They have to search through reconstruction of documents to find out how the [illegal alien] actually behaved. Looking at credit card records, postage address labels.

"Nothing is connected to anything in this country. A person with a Social Security card, procured with a phony birth certificate, is going to get a driver's license and a credit card and a whole pyramid of documents built on one another is begun," Stein said.

"They may assume an alias at some point. Often they'll apply for a visa in one country with a phony passport and get it and then go to another country and get a visa under a different name. It is all compounded by the fact in this country [that] we don't have a secure database with a personal identity system," said Stein.

"Clearly the country needs a national identity card," he said. "All the other industrialized countries have come to realize that.

"Unless you do something to link up birth records to federal immigration documents, you don't have any way of determining who people are. People have a genuine concern about privacy in this country, but somehow that has come to jeopardize efforts to maintain our national security."

The Canadian border is regarded as a likely point of entry for several of the hijackers, but it is not so simple for the FBI to find that in INS records. The bureau has received some tips from private citizens in Maine that are helping them to trace the apparent hijackers.

Ray Stevens, proprietor of B&R MooseMart in Jackman, Maine, told UPI that he reported to the FBI that he sold gasoline on Aug. 17 to four men from the United Arab Emirates. He remembered them, he said, because he had worked in Saudi Arabia and takes "an interest in Arabs."

MooseMart is virtually the first business a car approaches on Route 201 from the Canadian border, 16 miles from the port of entry, an isolated post in the middle of the forest. Jackman is manned full time, but other Maine crossing points are not.

Last Aug. 31, U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, wrote to the INS and the Customs Service urging that the Maine border be better defended. David Lackey, Snowe's press aide, told UPI that several recent vacancies in the border assignments caused the Maine senators concern about drug smuggling.

Another location being investigated as a possible entry point for the hijackers is Coburn Gap, Maine, which is often unmanned, according to residents.

"They stripped both the interior of the U.S. and the northern border was completely abandoned while the Clinton southern border program was put in place," Stein said. "It was a charade, frankly, a show."

Stein said commercial pressure by U.S. business interests keeps the borders wide open. "Particularly on the northern border," he said, "business, for example, opposes anything that would inconvenience or slow down commercial traffic at the expense of national security.

"Commercial interests along the border that want low wages and fast-moving traffic, the ethnic-group lobbies and the civil-rights community have combined to make border security impossible," he said.

"Any fly-by-night training school that sets up shop now demands that the government admit students to give them business, the same way employers demand in a tight labor market that workers can be admitted so they can have low-wage workers," Stein said.

The vulnerability of the Canadian border was exposed in 1999, when Ahmed Ressam, 32, was arrested at a Washington-Canada border crossing point. Bomb components, including extremely powerful explosive material, were found in the trunk of his car. Five days later, Lucia Garofalo, a 35-year-old woman, and Bouabide Chamchi, a 20-year-old man, were arrested at Beecher Falls, Vt., when they attempted to enter the United States by car.

Garafalo was linked to Algerian Islamic League, which allegedly had connections to bin Laden. It was speculated that Ressam might have been planning to disrupt the pre-millennium celebration.

Copyright 2001 by United Press International.

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The virtual breakdown of U.S. immigration controls, these experts say, will make it impossible for the Bush administration to effect the homeland defense that it is planning. Though the United States does guard the nearly 2,000-mile border with Mexico, it stripped guards...
U.S.,Wide,Open,Terrorists,,Experts,Warn
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2001-00-17
Monday, 17 September 2001 12:00 AM
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