Illegal or fraudulent immigration into the United States is an important tool in the toolkits of America’s enemies – and it has been exploited tirelessly, and tragically, all too successfully.

The problems resulting from the amenable and porous borders of the United States have metastasized beyond the socio-economic concerns of ruinous welfare and health care loads, and unemployment. The immigration issue has been elevated to a critical problem of national security that demands our attention.

Despite the superficial correlation between lax immigration and frequently incompetent immigration policy and terrorism prevention, immigration concerns have all too often taken a backseat in the War on Terror to military action, the freezing of terrorist finances, innovative diplomatic developments, intelligence reform, and key security measures at airports and other transportation systems.

Undoubtedly, these security measures have drastically improved our capacity to thwart our enemies from orchestrating plots against our country; however, the threat posed by the immigration crisis remains under-attended by Washington policy officials.

Earlier this week, the Center for Immigration Studies released startling numbers extrapolated from the last half decade (2000-2005), wherein they determined that 7.9 million new immigrants, both legal and illegal, settled in the United States – marking this time period the highest five-year period of immigration in American history. CIS estimates that nearly half of the post-2000 immigrant arrivals – 3.7 million – are illegal aliens.

Additionally, the number of immigrants in the United States as of March 2005 is the highest in American history – 35.2 million or 12.1 percent of the total U.S. population. The statistics reveal unsettling details on the demographics of these new immigrants.

For example, 31 percent have not completed a high school education (three-and-a-half times the rate for natives) and 29 percent of immigrant-headed households use at least one major welfare program (compared to the 18 percent for native households).

In addition, one-third of immigrants lack health insurance (two-and-a-half times the rate for natives), and one-quarter of those in poverty are immigrants and their children. The problem extends beyond a domestic, socio-economic crisis and reaches into the depths of terrorism prevention and national security policies.

America must apply common sense to comprehend that voluminous immigration – arguably the greatest influx America has ever experienced – and the resulting loophole-susceptible system facilitates terrorist operatives in America.

Terrorists are exploiting our generous, welcoming arms, shared history as an immigrant nation and political ambivalence toward loathing illegal immigration while rejecting “anti-immigration” rhetoric and action to conduct terrorist activities against America.

In an extremely informative paper, “Immigration Benefits and Terrorism: Moving Beyond the 9/11 Staff Report on Terrorist Travel,” written by Janice Kephart, counsel to the 9/11 commission, Kephart details the immigration histories of 94 terrorists who operated in the United States from the early 1990s and through 2004, including six Sept. 11 hijackers who sought enhanced immigration benefits.

Kephart’s research is definitive: “Terrorists, both before and after 9/11, have and will continue to exploit the weaknesses of our lax immigration system by committing fraud and other violations.”

Of the 94 foreign-born terrorists who operated in the United States in her study, two-thirds (59 percent) were found to have committed immigration fraud prior to or in conjunction with taking part in terrorist activity. Of the 59 percent that violated the law, there were cumulatively 79 immigration violations.

Once in the United States, 23 terrorists became legal permanent residents. And 21 foreign terrorists became naturalized U.S. citizens. Terrorists need the guise of legal immigration status to support their terrorist activities on U.S. soil.

Kephart continues that “these gaps in our immigration system will remain exploited until the system becomes designed to catch terrorists better,” the U.S. can provide sufficient resources to such reforms and there is the “political will to enforce the law.”

Unfortunately, the entangled immigration problem impedes direct action and consideration for this critical issue. Politicians fear the heavy topic of immigration reform and have, therefore, side-stepped it in exchange for more resolutely agreed upon terrorism prevention tactics, such as airport security or intelligence reform.

However, with the advent of the CIS immigration report, the impending congressional vote on preliminary immigration reforms and the president’s budding interest in this topic, the facts remain – America’s enemies have exploited our immigration system – most particularly, the Sept. 11 hijackers – and the mass immigration has strained our mediocre system to the point of ineffectiveness.

To be fair, months after Sept. 11 the national security perspective of immigration was considered with the utmost seriousness.

For example, the agencies responsible for immigration made significant changes to the way in which our immigration systems operate. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services resolved to investigate the 300,000-plus foreigners who have absconded after being ordered deported, and in conjunction, these names were entered into the FBI’s national crime database.

However, if the United States is truly attuned to the critical national security perspective of the immigration crisis in America, we must unilaterally agree to reform our immigration system expeditiously in the name of protecting Americans.

Regretfully, it is questionable whether merely strict enforcement of immigration law will sufficiently protect America. At this point, policymakers must accept this hotly contested topic and develop actionable solutions before it’s too late.

The relation among mass immigration, illegal entry and fraud resulting in an overloaded bureaucracy and America’s national security is real.

Olivia Albrecht is the John Tower National Security Fellow with the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C. Ms. Albrecht researches international relations and national security issues, with a focus on the ‘Islamofascist’ phenomenon. Albrecht previously worked for the Pentagon (Non-Proliferation Policy) and with the Heritage Foundation, and is a graduate of Princeton University with a degree in Philosophy.