Protecting the Homeland

Ten Ways to Keep America Safer Without Trampling on Immigrants

All month, some dozen congressional committees have been hammering out the government's biggest reorganization plan since the 1940s: the consolidation of as many as 180 different government agencies—practically everything but the FBI and CIA—into President Bush's Department of Homeland Security (DHS). No one objects to a cabinet-level behemoth if it would thwart terrorism, but legislators are arguing heatedly over such issues as what functions would go where, who would control the flow of money among the divisions of the $37 billion department and what sacrifices employees would be expected to make. (The administration's plan could take away workers' rights to unionize as well as access to whistle-blower protections.)

Nowhere is the debate more vehement than around the fate of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Long the butt of ridicule and reproof from legislators on both sides of the aisle, the agency came under increasing fire after 9-11 for its chronic sluggishness, incompetence, and corruption, which helped make it easy for the hijackers to enter the U.S., enroll in flight schools, and board domestic flights without so much as an eyebrow raised.

Even before last September, the INS was slated for major reorganization. Likely improvements for both the enforcement and service sides, some years in the making, were on the verge of being adopted. Now the best of those efforts are at risk of being washed away in the tide of homeland security. The president proposes to absorb the INS into a Border and Transportation Security Division of the new DHS, which "will only make it more dysfunctional," law professor Bill Ong Hing—a member of a Department of Justice advisory panel on INS and Border Patrol misconduct under Janet Reno—said in Senate hearings late last month. For example, years of studies have concluded that the agency's commissioner needs to have higher status within the Justice Department to be taken seriously by the administration and to manage the 33 INS district directors who, in the words of a policy paper by the National Immigration Forum, "operate decentralized fiefdoms around the country."

illustration: Jack Black

The Bush proposal would push the INS director further down the totem pole, thicken red tape, and suffuse all INS functions with a voracious enforcement mentality. In the House debates over the last two weeks, committees contested the Bush plan, proposing to split off some INS duties and leave them in the Justice Department, and no doubt Senate committees will offer their own variations as they take on the DHS reorganization this week. One thing is clear: Bush's plan marches 180 degrees in the wrong direction.

As Congress rushes to close the deal on the Department of Homeland Security before its August recess, the Voice consulted experts in security, migration, and civil rights and immigration law for suggestions on what the U.S. could do to improve security and preserve America as a nation animated by immigrants, reverence for constitutional protections, and commitment to civil liberties.

These experts agree that fortress-America police tactics are not the only means—indeed, are not the surest means—of safeguarding America's people and ideals. They propose a panoply of more democratic and more effective methods. Here are 10 of them.

1. Isolate Terrorism, Not America Some 30 million people enter the United States each year, almost all of them on temporary student, tourist, or business visas; about a million seek to settle here and build new lives. Restrictionists like Representative George Gekas, a Pennsylvania Republican who introduced sweeping anti-immigration legislation late last month, insist that letting in fewer immigrants or visitors means reducing the risk of terrorists slipping through. Such reasoning—Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, calls it "totally bogus"—is like banning the sale of dry beans because a couple of stones get into the pile. The point is to improve the sifting process, not to deny the U.S. the many benefits that most immigrants and visitors bring. According to the National Immigration Forum, immigrants contribute some $10 billion to the U.S. economy over and above what they cost in social services—and that doesn't include the impact of immigrant-owned businesses. Immigrants pay an estimated $133 billion in direct taxes; meanwhile, visiting students and tourists bring billions more into the economy each year.

Isolating America not only injures the economy more brutally than any number of CEO scandals can, but also dries up America's cultural richness, its identity as a land thriving on the embrace of new ideas and people. Butterfield warns against the recent "paradigm shift" in Congress that casts immigration policy as purely a security matter and conflates INS reform with shoring up safety. America's openness has always been the core of its greatness, advocates argue, and the focus must remain on screening out those who are threats instead of on how to close the borders generally.

2. Gather Good Information—and Use It The INS must update its technology, hire people who know what to do with it, and become part of a genuine collaboration between the State Department, Customs, and intelligence services. The infamous INS, FBI, and CIA failures of 9-11 were all a matter of not noticing, properly interpreting, or sharing information. Nine of the 19 hijackers, for instance, were tagged by a relatively crude airline computer program that flags people with unusual ticket-buying behavior—such as last-minute, one-way purchases of tickets to far-off destinations, paid for in cash—but nobody was paying attention. The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act, signed into law in May, goes a long way toward upgrading staffing and technology at INS and Customs, promoting the use of counterfeit-resistant passports and visas, and mandating the sharing of information among various gatekeeper agencies by giving joint access to various databases. Under such a system, the INS would have been able to notice, for instance, that Khalid Al-Midhar, who may have piloted the plane that slammed into the Pentagon on 9-11, had been identified early in 2001 by the CIA as having links to an attacker of the U.S.S. Cole. By the time the CIA notified the INS—August 2001—Al-Midhar had already entered the U.S. without a hitch.

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