Lawmakers Mull Immigration Reform

With the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 unearthing some startling laxness and loopholes in the procedures and enforcement of U.S. immigration policy, the debate over reforming that policy is just beginning.

On the table in Congress are a number of measures, among them re-militarizing the U.S.-Mexico border, temporarily suspending the student visa program, meticulously checking the background of all visa applicants, and computerized tracking of the so-called "overstays" who account for 40 percent of the nation's illegal immigrants.

But before lawmakers can decide what they can do, they must decide what they are not going to do. Most, for example, agree that the guest worker and amnesty programs suggested by President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox in recent weeks are moot.

"It is still a legitimate agenda," said Angela Kelly, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant advocacy group in Washington. "But I think we're all going to be viewing many things through the lens of Sept. 11."

Student visas are likely to be another quick casualty of Sept. 11. Investigators say many of the suspected hijackers were in the country on student visas.

In response, Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., wants to suspend all foreign student visas for six months until the INS can institute background checks and a tracking system.

Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., wants more stringent controls on all visas.

Legislation he proposed last week calls for a 30-day waiting period while background checks are conducted on all visa applicants. He also wants to create a federal Visa Control Office, a law enforcement agency that would track down and deport people who remain in the country after their visas have expired.

Bond also wants stricter standards for the visa waiver program that allows people from 29 nations to come to the U.S. without visas.

In 1998, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the United States granted more than 30 million student, tourist, teaching, and business visas to foreign nationals. Somewhere between 3 million and 5 million of these people remain in the country after their visas expire and become illegal.

Congress will likely move quickest to approve legislation proposed last week by Attorney General John Ashcroft. Ashcroft wants a bill expanding the powers of the Immigration and Naturalization Service to detain and deport immigrants associated with terrorists or who support organizations associated with terrorist groups.

Under current law, an alien can be removed for terrorism only for providing direct material support to individual terrorists. Ashcroft wants to be able to detain and deport those with ties to the organizations as well.

One of the chief concerns about Ashcroft's new rules is that they would snag innocent people for connections they knew nothing about. For example, if some members of a church or mosque were involved with terrorists, could all members of that church or mosque be detained or deported?

"We're concerned of people being guilty by association," said the NIF's Kelley.

Kelly said the U.S. should instead gear its policies and resources toward controlling immigration before people have entered the country.

"Two of the perpetrators [in the Sept. 11 attacks] were added to the FBI's watch list after they entered the country," Kelly said. "Once they are in the United States they are harder to get," she said.

Visas currently are processed and issued at U.S. consulates, where often-inexperienced employees operate in the dark about applicants' true histories. They don't even have access to INS and FBI databases of unsavory people, Kelly said.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate's immigration subcommittee, said last week he would introduce a bill to correct that problem.

Other reforms, Kelly said, should include custom inspections at foreign airports before passengers board U.S.-bound airplanes, and more scrutiny of passenger manifest lists. She also said the United States must improve its coordination and intelligence sharing with Canadian and Mexican border controls.

Rep. Jim Traficant, D-Ohio, is also looking south, at the possibility of returning armed military patrols to the U.S.-Mexico border and allowing them, along with law enforcement officers, to inspect cargo and vehicles at points of entry. The military was removed from the Mexican border in 1997 after a Marine fatally shot a West Texas teenager.

Traficant's amendment passed the House 242-173 early last week, but the Senate has killed similar amendments he proposed in the past.

Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, is vehemently opposed to Traficant's bill and has been vigorously campaigning against it. Reyes, a former Border Patrol chief, instead wants to see some of the $40 billion Congress has allocated for President Bush's anti-terrorism war used to hire immigration and customs inspectors, FBI and Border Patrol agents, and U.S. marshals.

"Militarization of the border with soldiers unfamiliar with border situations and not trained to deal with them is an invitation to disaster," Reyes said.

With reports that some of the suspects related to the attacks entered via the Canadian border (the U.S.-Canadian border is one of the busiest in the world), other officials are looking to the north.

Kim Campbell, the former Canadian prime minister, told Fox News that the U.S. and Canada already share an "intense" security relationship, but still must improve the coordination of their efforts. However, she warned of the severe financial repercussions of measures that would impede or obstruct trade.

"This has been a wake up call for many governments," Campbell said. She said further actions should be about "learning the right lessons and getting our act together."