Easy entry by terrorists prompts calls for tighter visa controls

Open door policy under fire

Posted: Monday, October 15, 2001

He seemed eager to learn English in America. So he signed up for a four-month language course in California. Nothing seemed strange about that.

When Hani Hanjour didn't show up, the school wasn't alarmed. That happens now and then with foreign students.

A year later, he is believed to have been at the controls of American Airlines Flight 77 that plowed into the Pentagon -- one of four terrorist hijackings Sept. 11 that left more than 5,500 people dead in New York and Washington.

Most of the 19 hijackers entered the United States legally with the kinds of visas routinely granted each year to millions of foreign tourists, students, workers and business travelers.

Some didn't leave the country when their visas expired. Some may have used phony names. Their success in eluding detection spotlights the plight of immigration officials who are swamped by the flood of visitors and have no real hope of finding violators.

The ease with which the hijackers exploited the system has prompted calls for tighter immigration laws, a moratorium on new foreign students and a narrowing of America's open door.

''The terrorist attacks reveal to the whole world how weak our immigration system is and how lax the enforcement of immigration law has been,'' said U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican and co-author of a 1996 wide-ranging immigration reform law.

Some lawmakers are urging steps be taken to close immigration loopholes that terrorists might use to get across the borders and roam the country at will.

Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., is pushing a measure that would require intelligence and law enforcement agencies to share information with the State Department and Immigration and Naturalization Service as a way of weeding out potentially dangerous visa applicants.

''The INS system is very, very inadequate,'' Bond said. ''We haven't put the personnel in, we haven't put the resources in INS to do the job that is reasonable to expect of them.''

Similar warning lights flashed in recent years after it was discovered that participants in other terrorist plots on U.S. soil had violated immigration rules or managed to slip into the country.

Mohammed Salameh, who rented the van used in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, had overstayed his visa. Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, sentenced to life in prison for a plot that included plans to blow up New York landmarks, came in on a tourist visa even though his name was on a federal watch list of undesirables.

Not everyone is enthusiastic over the idea of fighting terrorism with immigration laws. Some experts say better intelligence is needed. New walls to bar foreign visitors, they say, are both impractical and harmful to businesses and universities.

''The idea that you can close the borders of the United States is just pure fiction,'' said Ira Kurzban, a Florida attorney and former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. ''It's just not in our economic and political interests.''

The sheer volume of visitors makes trying to impose controls a daunting task. Last year, the State Department issued 7.1 million visas -- more than triple the number 30 years ago, according to the Center for Immigration Studies. And once people get in, there's no telling where they go or if they leave on time.

''It's probably easier to disappear into the crowd in this country than it is anywhere else,'' said Mark Krikorian, the center's executive director.

Forty percent of the 7 million to 8 million illegal aliens in the United States are those who remained after their visas expired, according to government and private estimates.

This tangled state of affairs prompted Congress in 1996 to authorize a computerized entry-exit system to track visa holders. But the plan was amended and delayed due to political pressures from communities along the border.

Last week, federal documents revealed at least 13 of the 19 hijackers entered the United States legally. Three of them had overstayed their visas by Sept. 11 and the status of one other could not be determined on that day.

Immigration officials were unable to find records relating to the six others, raising the possibility that some may have entered under different names.

INS records suggest several of the hijacking leaders who had been in the United States during 2000 re-entered the country for the final time in May and June. They included Mohamed Atta, Marwan Al-Shehhi and Khalid Almihdhar.

Immigration problems have been a common thread beyond the hijackers: Of more than 600 people arrested or detained, federal officials say, at least 165 have violated immigration laws.

The 19 hijackers apparently didn't arouse suspicions and blended into American society, acquiring drivers licenses, renting apartments and taking flying lessons while plotting their horrific acts.

One of the suspected hijackers, Hanjour, had links to the United States going back at least a decade when he took an eight-week English course in Arizona. He later received flight training there.

In 1996, a man named Hani Hanjoor attended English classes in Oakland, Calif., according to federal officials. He also attended a local flight school for half a day. Investigators say he is the same Hani Hanjour who entered the country last year on a student visa from Saudi Arabia.

He applied for a four-month English language program in Oakland, Calif., but did not show up when classes began two months later, a school official said.

Some terrorism experts say it's no surprise the hijackers escaped detection.

''They seemed to be well-educated enough, so they fit in,'' said Stephen Gale, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. ''If you have a nice suit, a good briefcase, your hair is cut and you're smiling ... what's an immigration official to do?''

Gale said even if some hijackers were on government ''watch'' lists, they might have been missed because Arabic names may have multiple spellings in Roman letters and passport names wouldn't necessarily match.

Krikorian, head of the nonprofit immigration center, said the problem often starts abroad.

State Department officers, he said, usually have just a few minutes to consider each visa application and are encouraged to give their approval to maintain good relations with the host country.

''The visa process isn't doing what it's supposed to be doing,'' he added. ''Overseas, there are flaws. At the border, there are flaws. In the country, there are flaws.''

Heightened concern about immigration laws now should come as no surprise.

''Whenever anything happens to threaten national or personal security, the climate becomes distinctively more anti-immigrant,'' said Stephen Legomsky, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

Both world wars intensified pressures on immigrants; after Pearl Harbor, Japanese-Americans were rounded up in internment camps.

Since Sept. 11, some lawmakers have proposed tamper-proof visas and a six-month moratorium on new foreign student visas until a system for tracking them can be implemented.

But Legomsky said a moratorium would hurt universities that depend on foreign students. Besides, he said, any terrorist who wants to come to the United States and is unable to get a student visa would just get another kind.

Legomsky anticipates this new sentiment will mean fewer foreign student applications. ''There are lots of young people overseas who would love to come to the United States,'' he said, ''and are now are having second thoughts.''

He also said the attacks will likely mean longer backups at consular offices overseas, more extensive background checks and more rejections of people of Arab descent.

Virgil Wiebe, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Law who runs the immigration law clinic there, already senses fear.

''Folks that I've talked to are afraid to go out on the streets even if they have proper documents,'' he said.

Wiebe is skeptical any monitoring system would be foolproof.

''The urge is to think there's a simple solution (such as) requiring everybody to check in every two weeks,'' he said. ''But the folks who are going to ... commit acts of terrorism -- I'm not sure that kind of system would catch them.''

That doesn't mean there won't be changes, he said.

''The country goes through cycles of battening down the hatches,'' he said. ''If there has ever been a moment when that impulse is going to be strong, my guess is it is now.''

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