WASHINGTON – As the government struggles to learn the lessons of Sept. 11, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is demanding tougher immigration laws, increased border patrols and higher scrutiny of visa holders.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said Thursday that the only thing keeping the bad guys out of the United States late at night in some remote areas are orange traffic cones.
"This is not a substitute for our security. It's inexpensive yes, but it's also ineffective," Dorgan said.
Dorgan joined Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., to introduce legislation aimed at reforming immigration and visa rules.
"Sept. 11 pointed out the clear shortcomings in our immigration and visa system. Our nation's borders have become a sieve," Feinstein said. Part of the problem: 9,000 border patrol officers on the southern border with Mexico and only about 334 on the northern border with Canada.
Of the 1.6 million people apprehended at the borders in 2000, less than 12,000 were stopped at the Canadian border, according to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
With those figures, it should come as no surprise that the Census Bureau said Thursday that 8 million illegal immigrants live in the United States.
"We didn't devote too much to border patrols," said Steven Camerota, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, who added that the census figure on illegals grew 4.5 million since 1990.
"In some ways it's a surprise it didn't grow more," he said.
Feinstein and Kyl — both of whom have hefty numbers of illegal immigrants in their states — said protecting the United States doesn't just mean more security at the geographic borders.
They would like stricter documentation for all incoming visa holders and want the State Department to stop granting student visas to individuals from countries listed on the State Department's terror-sponsor list.
They also propose having the INS conduct background checks on all student visa applicants, strengthening alien smuggling laws and increasing resources to the INS, the Customs Service and the State Department.
Anti-terrorism legislation set to become law this week triples the number of Border Patrol, INS and customs agents along the northern border, where at least one terrorist in the Sept. 11 attack was suspected of moving into the country illegally.
Kyl said that's not enough.
"Even with the passage of anti-terrorism legislation, the United States will continue to face overwhelming infrastructure and personnel needs," Kyl said.
The legislators also accused the State Department of not monitoring its student visa program closely enough. Last year, the State Department issued 500,000 student visas, including 14,344 to Syrians and 25,932 to Iranians, two nations on the State Department's current list of countries that sponsor terrorists.
It also issued student visas to 60,508 Saudis, 21,811 Jordanians, 48,883 Egyptians, and 143,297 Israelis, all countries which, willingly or not, host terror cells.
"We have actually educated the individual that went back to Iraq and heads the Iraqi nuclear weapons program. We have actually educated the person who now heads the Palestinian Islamic Jihad," Feinstein said.
Earlier this month, INS reported that 13 of the 19 suspected highjackers entered the U.S. legally, two of them using student visas. Since the attack, none of current policies have been altered.
"You've got people who are lawfully coming into the United States with proper paperwork and there's no reason to believe they're up to anything until it's too late," said INS spokesman Bill Strassberger.
But Brookings Institution immigration expert James M. Lindsay said legislation will not be effective in sealing the borders and lawmakers shouldn't try.
"We are never going to completely seal the border and it's sheer folly to try and do so," Lindsay said. "Millions of people come into the U.S. each year. Virtually none of them wants to do harm to America. What you're trying to do is locate a small number of people and they are going to get into the country illegally no matter what you do."
Strassberger said the "bigger challenge" is getting the intelligence to know who is a threat and who isn't.
Lawmakers said they also want to improve information-sharing systems between the INS, the State Department, the Department of Justice, and the intelligence community so they can track who is coming into the country and whether or not they belong here.