Why Immigration Enforcement and Secure Borders Are What Will Keep America Safe From Terrorists

When naturalized U.S. citizen Faisal Shahzad was arrested for his terror plot to detonate a bomb in Times Square, it exposed more than the ongoing attempts by international terror organizations to attack America and the weaknesses in our intelligence gathering. The arrest of Faisal Shahzad was another in a long line of examples that demonstrate the need to secure our nation’s borders and enforce our nation’s immigration laws to keep terrorists from entering the United States.

For years, we’ve known that strong border security is a fundamental component of national security. If we don’t know who is coming into the country, then we don’t know what harm they might do us.

The Times Square bomber was able to gain U.S. citizenship because a background check failed to identify him as a threat. Shahzad attempted to blow up a car left in Times Square. Fortunately, his attempt failed due to alert citizens and a poorly constructed bomb. He recently pled guilty to terrorism charges and is awaiting sentencing.

Similarly, Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Christmas Day bomber, had previously been given a visa to enter the U.S. But even after his own father called to alert authorities that Abdulmutallab might have been radicalized, his visa was not revoked and he was allowed to board a plane to the United States. As the plane approached its destination—Detroit—Abdulmutallab tried to detonate a bomb under his clothing, in an attempted suicide attack. His plot also was thwarted by alert passengers and a poorly made bomb.

Our national security policy should consist of more than relying on dumb bombers and smart citizens. Sooner or later, a terrorist is going to build a bomb that works.

In both of these terror attempts, our immigration system failed to keep these terrorists either from entering the U.S. or becoming citizens. Strong immigration enforcement and border security are the first line of defense against terrorists. If we can prevent terrorists from entering the U.S., we can prevent attacks on U.S. soil.

This is not the first time that our immigration system has been used by foreign terrorists to gain a safe haven in the United States. The 9/11 hijackers also received visas to come to this country. 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 ultimately 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 already 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 for federal identification purposes such as boarding planes and entering federal buildings. Regrettably, the Obama administration supports repealing the law.

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 around the world. At visa-issuing posts where the program exists today, 100% of applicants receive additional screening. Unfortunately, such screening only exists at 14 locations out of a list of the 29 designated “highest-risk” posts worldwide. At other posts, less than two percent out of 5.8 million applications receive additional screening.

The Abdulmutallab “near miss” is a reminder that we need full screening of visa applications at all “high risk” posts. That’s why Republicans in the House and Senate introduced the Secure Visas Act of 2010. It mandates that the Department of Homeland Security maintain the Visa Security Program at the 14 consular posts that already have them and create new units at the 15 other posts that ICE has designated as “highest-risk.”

Terrorists may also be exploiting weaknesses in the Southwest border to enter the U.S. illegally. In 2007, then Director of National Intelligence Admiral McConnell confirmed that the U.S./Mexico border is a gateway to the U.S. for terrorists. According to recent news reports, the Department of Homeland Security issued a terror watch regarding possible illegal crossings into the U.S. by terrorist suspects and recruiters. The report came from Texas authorities who allegedly were warned that Somali terrorists—members of Al Shabaab, a group aligned with Al Qaeda—are illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

It makes no sense to deny the link between immigration enforcement and national security. If we want to prevent attacks, we need to keep terrorists from getting visas and stop them from coming to the U.S. and obtaining citizenship. That means enforcing our immigration laws, not ignoring them!

Terrorists will use any means possible to enter the U.S. The only way to guarantee that we will not have another terror attack on U.S. is to strengthen border security and enforce our immigration laws. Until we do that, Americans will remain vulnerable to attacks.

Republican Congressman Lamar Smith represents Texas’ 21st district in the U.S. House of Representatives. He is the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee.

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