Immigration Enforcement and Border Security Are the First Line Defense Against Terrorists

All of us can remember where we were the day a foreign enemy attacked us on our own soil ten years ago. On that day in September, thousands of innocent Americans lost their lives. We will never forget them.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks forever changed our perception of what it means to be safe but it didn’t change who we are. While the threat of terrorism is now a part of our daily lives, we have resolved to continue defending our freedom and securing the blessings of liberty.

In the aftermath of 9/11, we collectively asked ourselves how an attack of this magnitude could have happened.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks demonstrated the need to secure our borders and enforce our immigration laws to keep terrorists from entering the U.S. Although we have made significant strides to protect the homeland, cracks in our immigration system and along the border remain.

For example, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, we learned that our immigration system had been used by foreign terrorists to gain a safe haven in the United States. All of the 9/11 hijackers received visas to come to the U.S. And once they were here, all but one of the 9/11 hijackers acquired some form of a U.S. identification document. These forms of ID helped them board commercial flights on 9/11.

Following the devastating attacks, Congress appointed the 9/11 Commission to examine intelligence failures that led to September 11. The 9/11 Commission recognized these immigration-related weaknesses as part of the problem.

To keep terrorists—who may be in the U.S. illegally—from getting valid forms of ID, Congress passed the REAL ID Act. The law prohibits illegal immigrants, including terrorists, from obtaining forms of identification that can be used to board planes and enter federal buildings. Regrettably, the Obama administration has continued to delay its implementation until January 2013.

To address visa security, Congress created the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Visa Security Program. The goal was simple: increase the security of the visa process at U.S. embassies and consulates in “highest-risk” countries. At visa-issuing posts where the program exists today, all applicants receive additional screening. Unfortunately, such screening only exists at 19 locations out of a list of about 50 designated “highest-risk” posts worldwide. At other posts, less than 2% receive additional screening.

Those who wish to do America harm are aware of our continued vulnerability. Last February, Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari, a 20-year-old citizen of Saudi Arabia living in Texas, came to the U.S. on a student visa and was charged with the attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction.

According to the affidavit, Aldawsari had planned to commit a terrorist attack against the U.S. for years. That is precisely why he applied for a student visa in order to gain entry to the U.S. and carry out his plot. Aldawsari also wrote in his journal that to avoid detection and to help carry out his plot, he would need multiple drivers’ licenses and a forged U.S. birth certificate.

And this isn’t the only time a terrorist has used our immigration system to come to the U.S. since 9/11. Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab, the terrorist who attempted to blow up a plane going to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, had a valid visa at the time of the attempted terror attack. Abdulmutallab was issued a visa in July 2008, and even after his father expressed concerns to U.S. authorities about his son’s radicalization, his visa was not revoked.

Terrorists may also be exploiting weaknesses in the Southwest border to enter the U.S. illegally. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), only 44% of the Southwest border is under the “operational control” of the Border Patrol. Major gaps like these are an open invitation to illegal immigrants and terrorists. As long as the entire border is not secure, the country is not secure.

Each year, tens of thousands of illegal immigrants enter the U.S. from countries other than Mexico (OTM) including some countries with strong ties to terrorist organizations. In Fiscal Year 2010, more than 59,000 OTMS were apprehended while entering the U.S. These individuals come from countries such as Syria, Iran, Somalia, Nigeria and Pakistan. If we don’t know who is coming into the country, then we don’t know what harm they might do.

The diversity visa program also could allow terrorists to come into the U.S. Created in 1990, this program is better known as the visa lottery since thousands of immigrants are selected at random to receive visas.

Basing our immigration system on the luck of the draw is not smart immigration policy—it’s a jackpot for terrorists. Each year, diversity visas are issued to individuals from countries listed as State Sponsors of Terrorism. For the 2011 program, 1,842 Iranians, 553 Sudanese, and 32 Syrians were issued diversity visas. We should eliminate this program.

Strong immigration enforcement and border security are the first line of defense against terrorists. Until we do that, Americans will remain vulnerable to attacks.

Republican Rep. Lamar Smith represents Texas as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.