Analysis: Immigration Policy Spurs Debate

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WASHINGTON (UPI) — The immigration-related measure implemented in the aftermath of the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, have resulted in a contentious and growing debate over the proper role of U.S. border policies in homeland security.

At issue is the roundup and lengthy detention of Arabs and Muslims by federal law enforcement as part of terror investigations, along with subsequent immigration crackdowns targeting individuals from Arab and Muslim nations.


Although the Justice Department has not released precise numbers, federal authorities are estimated to have detained more than 1,200 people, mostly Muslim, on immigration violations during federal investigations since Sept. 11. In addition, nearly 77,000 immigrants from Arab and Muslim countries have been questioned, fingerprinted and photographed as part of the government’s special registration program, enacted to track individuals from targeted nations. Of those people, 13,000 now face deportation for immigration violations.

Critics of the effort to target those of Middle Eastern and Muslim backgrounds argue that the focus on immigration policies as a primary means of ensuring homeland security is a misguided one. They say that the changes made to U.S. immigration policy since Sept. 11 have proven largely ineffective at catching terrorists and have distracted scarce resources from more important intelligence and immigration policy needs.

Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center, said that since the Sept. 11 terror attacks there have been extraordinary manipulations of immigration law with little to show from it.

“There is no sign that this strategy has worked and it has no real sign of success,” he said last month at a panel discussion on the impact the attacks have had on civil liberties. The event was sponsored by the liberal Century Foundation.

“Should we really be surprised that not a single terrorist has gone into the federal immigration office to present themselves for interrogation?” asked Suro.

Supporters of the tough, targeted immigration policies enacted by the Bush administration over the last 20 months argue that a stricter immigration system is exactly the kind of reasonable means needed to enhance American national security without infringing on the rights of everyday citizens.

A Migration Policy Institute study of federal detentions since Sept. 11 found that although the terrorist attacks demanded a powerful response, the focus on immigration policy as a major tool for homeland defense has produced blunt and ineffective policies. The report from the pro-immigration think tank was based on information compiled through interviews with lawyers and community leaders and a survey of press reports on more than 400 detainees.

One Saudi Arabian man who held a valid visa and was enrolled in a San Diego college was held in solitary confinement by federal investigators for nine days following the attacks, because he had lived in the same boardinghouse as a Sept. 11 hijacker. The man was not given access to a shower or toothbrush. According to the report, this type of treatment was typical of the post-Sept. 11 detentions.

Of all the people detained in the immigrant roundups following the 2001 attacks, only four Detroit men faced terrorism-related charges. Two were convicted and two acquitted.

Muzaffar Chisti, a senior policy analyst at MPI and co-author of the report, told United Press International that blanket measures like roundups and arrests and special registration requirements for individuals from Arab and Muslim nations have done little to improve national security. At the same time, these enforcement methods have alienated immigrant populations that are highly beneficial to the war on terror.

“In the domestic context, immigration has been the lead tool (for fighting terrorism) and the evidence for its being very effective is not that convincing,” said Chisti. “These changes have also had extremely important prices both in terms of civil liberties and constitutional values.”

Those who support the idea of tougher immigration policy enforcement counter that border policy has been proven to be an effective part of overall counter-terrorism efforts. Neither the Justice Department nor the Bureau of Immigration and Citizenship Services could confirm the number of individuals, if any, held on immigration charges since Sept. 11 who have been prosecuted for terrorism-related crimes.

Chisti and other critics of relying too heavily on immigration laws as a law enforcement mechanism say that the number is zero. However, Steven A. Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, said that tough enforcement of immigration laws is a proper tool in the fight against terror.

He pointed to a case involving an exchange student in Idaho, who the government has charged with visa fraud and with making false statements on visa applications. A federal judge has ordered that the man be deported after he refused to testify in his own defense, but he is being held until the conclusion of his criminal trial.

The government alleges that Sami Omar al-Hussayen, a Saudi Arabian national, has ties to international terrorists because he funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to a suspect Islamic charity, the Islamic Assembly of North America. He also maintained a Web site advocating violent jihad, or holy war, against the United States.

The government has also tried to tie the student to Osama bin Laden by citing his contact with two radical Saudi sheiks connected to al-Qaida. However, the criminal charges he faces are only immigration related, a fact that critics say demonstrated the government’s use of immigration laws as a means to side step terror charges, which are more difficult to prove in court.

Camarota, whose think tank is devoted to limited immigration, also pointed to how immigration officials thwarted a planned bombing of the Los Angeles International Airport in 1999 by apprehending the architect of the scheme at the Canadian border. He added that public records show that of the 48 al-Qaida terrorists found in the United States from 1993-2001, 22 had committed violations of U.S. immigration law.

“If a Mexican day laborer can cross the U.S. border with little difficulty, so can an al-Qaida terrorist,” Camarota told UPI. “The bottom line is that terrorist often violate the laws, that is why you want to enforce them from a national security standpoint.”

Suro, Chisti and other critics of Bush administration immigration policy say that without congressional input or a significant national dialogue, a two-tiered system of civil liberties has developed — one for immigrants and another for American citizens. They say something as simple as failing to file a change-of-address form with the federal government could result in an immigrant being held indefinitely, with no regard for judicial rights, and then could be deported.

“It (immigration policy) can be a very important and supportive tool,” said Chisti. “The problem with post-9/11 actions has been the tools and they way in which they have been used.”

A report released last month by the inspector general’s office at the Justice Department was highly critical of the way federal law enforcement handled 762 foreigners held on immigration violations in the 11 months following the attacks. Investigations for more than a quarter of the 762 individuals detained took longer than three months. In addition, the report said the treatment of those detained did not conform to standard procedures and was, at times, physically abusive.

Camarota was also critical of selective enforcement of immigration laws, but only as a long-term strategy. Although understandable in the aftermath of Sept. 11, he said the targeting of particular groups of immigrants was not only constitutionally problematic, but also unfair.

He proposed that tougher enforcement of immigration policies be applied to immigrants from all cultures, adding that terrorists are know to come to the United States from other parts of the world, such as Germany.

There are those that support the Bush administration’s immigration policies as they stand. Robert S. Leiken, director of immigration and national security programs at the conservative Nixon Center, told UPI that targeting immigrants from Arab and Muslim countries is reasonable given that the U.S. government is fighting an Islamic terrorist threat.

However, he added that things would be different if law enforcement has better intelligence about terror networks and individual terrorists.

The state of intelligence sharing between law enforcement and immigration officials remains abysmal and is an issue of importance for those on all sides of the debate. Although some support the immigration changes, it is generally agreed that nothing has been done to improve the analysis or dissemination of gathered intelligence.

“The trouble is that what this (special registration) program has accomplished so far is the creation of a massive haystack of information with it very unlikely that investigators will find the needles within,” said Suro. “We are amassing enormous amounts of information about non-citizens with no one in the government who has the capacity to process it intelligently.”

Instead of looking at all Sudanese or Iranians in the United States, Chisti said we have to look at intelligence information like travel habits and make an effort to do better analysis. Others like Camarota stress the need to track the departures and arrivals of all those traveling to the United States.

Nevertheless, Chisti and other critics say the major successes in apprehending terrorists have not come as a result of the changes made to immigration policy, but from intelligence breakthroughs and law enforcement actions both overseas and domestically. They note that all but two of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers had clean immigration records and probably would be admitted to the United States under current immigration policies.

Gregory Michaelidis, senior policy analyst at The Hatcher Group and an expert on immigration policy, told UPI that what is needed is a broader debate aimed at developing policies that protect the United States but also allow for the free flow of people and goods that are integral to the American economy.

“I don’t think anybody, including advocates of these changes, don’t realize that this is a really tough issue,” said Michaelidis. “Reconciling aggressive law enforcement with protecting civil liberations raises 100 gray areas. The Department of Justice has gone way overboard in terms of detentions and long-term lockups to find what has ended up being very little.”

Copyright 2003 by United Press International. All rights reserved.