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.

3. Shrink the Haystack Identifying criminals from reams of information is a needle-in-the-haystack pursuit. Security experts applaud new tools to help them hone in on that needle—but it's equally important, they say, to shrink the haystack. Instead, some new procedures heap more hay onto the pile. For instance, knowing that people granted student visas actually enroll in school is useful—it weeds out those who never do as possibly suspicious. But requiring that the INS track what they are majoring in and how many credits they're taking only bogs the system down. Similarly, a proposed law requiring that male entrants from seven Middle Eastern countries (soon to be expanded to 26 countries, and then more) present themselves periodically to be photographed, fingerprinted, and report changes of address uses up tons of technical and human resources, but also produces tons of unusable information. Suppose Mohamed Atta had shown up for his fingerprint sessions. How would that have prevented—or even raised suspicions about—his nefarious plans?

4. End Racial Profiling Never mind that rounding up Arabs, South Asians, and Muslims on the basis of national origin and/or religion is politically incorrect, says law professor David Harris; what's worse, the hard facts show that it is counterproductive. In his book Profiles in Injustice: Why Police Profiling Cannot Work, Harris examines statistics collected by state and local police and customs-inspection agencies and builds a damning case that race-based stops-and-searches don't help get guns, drugs, or criminals off the streets. In New York, for instance, a 1999 attorney general's report showed that police stops of African Americans and Latinos, though far more common, were less likely to result in arrests than stops of whites.

"Race is a distraction," Harris explains. "It takes law enforcement off the track." And of course, Al Qaeda is smart enough to sign up recruits who don't fit the stereotype: suspected "dirty bomber" Jose Padilla, for example, is a Latino U.S. citizen. Finally, profiling alienates the very people who could assist the government most—including translators and informants. "We need people to come forward if they observe behavior that is genuinely suspicious," says Harris. "That takes a relationship of trust and of people feeling they are part of America. So what do we do? Declare that thousands of Arab and Muslim men will be brought in for questioning and lock hundreds up for visa violations? It's the dumbest thing we could do."

5. Regularize the Status of Mexican and Other Undocumented Immigrants Who Contribute to America The U.S. spends millions of dollars each year going after undocumented Mexicans—even as agribusinesses demand the low-wage labor they provide. Before 9-11, as Migration Policy Institute co-director Demetrios Papademetriou puts it, the U.S. was finally beginning to "tell ourselves the truth about the realities of the labor market and to adjust immigration policy accordingly." The U.S. and Mexico came close to agreeing on opening new legal channels for seasonal workers coming to the U.S. and for those already here to earn status.

Since then, panic has choked off these efforts. That's too bad, says Papademetriou, because border security is improved when unauthorized migrants can be isolated. Moreover, the political game of chasing migrant workers "breeds illegality, turns employers into criminals, and encourages the violation of labor and human rights." The INS pours resources into hounding lettuce pickers while Atta and his cohorts waltz right in. Meanwhile, a report released last week by the Public Policy Institute of California revealed that the $2.5 billion-plus crackdown on the Mexican border over the last nine years has increased the number of Mexicans who stay in the U.S. illegally rather than risk crossing back and forth for temporary jobs.

6. Improve the Service Side of the INS A permanent resident from Sweden—let's call her Yvonne—files a routine application to bring her husband into the U.S. with a spousal visa. Months go by, then a year, and Yvonne's request has yet to be processed; indeed, under the current backlog, such applications can take half a decade. So her husband gets a tourist visa, joins Yvonne, and stays on when the visa expires. The couple thus joins the millions of "illegal aliens" pushed out of status by the INS's own sluggishness. (Non-citizen partners of gay and lesbian Americans are forced into this tourist-visa strategy from the get-go because they don't qualify for spousal visas at all.) In turn, the enforcement side of the INS spends inordinate resources trying to find and deport them.

It's impossible to calculate how many millions of dollars the INS might save on enforcement by beefing up its service provisions, but there's no question that the mounting backlog—it quadrupled to nearly 4 million applications in the last decade, according to a May 2001 General Accounting Office report—diminishes security. "Staff are rewarded for the timely handling of petitions rather than for careful scrutiny of those petitions' merits," a more recent GAO study reported, leading to "rampant" and "pervasive" fraud. Critics of the DHS fear that the service side of the INS will wither under the pervasive enforcement mentality of the new department—or be left to shrivel financially if separated from the rest of the INS, as some Congress members have proposed. Either way, diminishing INS services further exacerbates the security threat.

7. Untangle the Laws Syed comes to the U.S. legally as a high-tech computer whiz—one of 195,000 "special workers" who are invited into the U.S. each year. But he loses his job when the dotcom bubble bursts, and thus his visa-sponsoring employer. In the meantime, he has married a U.S. citizen and had a child. He wants to legalize his status, but the law requires him to leave America and apply from his country of origin. Because he spent time here illegally, his re-entry can be barred for up to 10 years—and that's not a matter of INS inefficiency, it's the law. Why risk being separated from his family for so long? Why bother to apply for adjustment of his status? Hundreds of thousands don't. And the INS goes after them at enormous cost.

That is just one of dozens of immigration laws Congress enacted to "get tough" on illegal aliens that sent the INS into overdrive. In the Senate hearings at the end of June, David A. Martin, former general counsel of the INS, said the INS has had little time to work on improvements over the last six years as it has scrambled to keep up with "a variety of complex new statutory initiatives" and an "unwieldy and hard-to-manage set of rules and procedures." INS could provide better security if it were charged with carrying out simpler and more sensible laws.

8. Look Beyond the Border While the government seeks to plug holes—and corruption—in its visa-granting systems, it needs to focus at least as much attention on the movement of goods as on people, insists Stephen E. Flynn, a retired Coast Guard commander and now a national security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. As he argues in a recent Foreign Affairs article, the most serious danger of the 9-11 attacks was "the exposure of the soft underbelly of globalization": America's embrace of global networks—along with capital's resistance to regulations as barriers to competitiveness—has produced "lanes so open that they practically invite terrorists to do their worst." As U.S. trade with Canada more than tripled from 1985 to 2000, Flynn notes, the number of Customs officials assigned to the northern border decreased by nearly a quarter. Moving biological or chemical weapons into the U.S. can be far easier than snagging a student visa.

But the fix cannot happen at the border itself. It takes five inspectors three hours to conduct a thorough check of a loaded 40-foot container or an 18-wheel truck, he points out, and in 2000, 11.6 million maritime containers, 11.5 million trucks, and 2.2 million railroad cars passed through U.S. border inspection. Cursory looks at even a minuscule portion of such vessels can back up border traffic for hours—producing chaos that terrorists can easily exploit. So inspections must, says Flynn, "move upstream." That means employing such devices as biometric travel ID cards for transnational truckers and captains; loading containers in security-sanitized facilities and fitting them with tamper-resistant mechanical and electronic seals; tracking their routes with E-ZPass-like transponders. Such protocols require international cooperation—especially among the handful of "mega-ports" through which almost all trade passes (Long Beach, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Singapore, Hamburg, Antwerp, Rotterdam). Security must extend far beyond the "homeland."

9. Recognize the Connections Between U.S. Trade and Foreign Policy and Migration Controlling migration into the U.S. does not begin at the border. People leave their homes and their countries because of economic and political forces that are often manipulated—or dangerously neglected—by the U.S. Take U.S. policy on coffee, for instance. Until the 1990s, a key component of anti-Communist foreign policy was to artificially elevate coffee prices in Latin America to support the huge number of rural workers laboring in the coffee fields. As a recent Wall Street Journal investigation revealed, the post-Cold War ideology of free trade brought an end to international agreements to prop up coffee prices, and Latin American farms have collapsed. The World Bank estimates that in Central America and Mexico, 600,000 permanent and temporary coffee workers have lost their jobs in the last two years alone. With no means of making a living, they are heading north. "If you really want to do something about illegal immigration," says the Migration Policy Institute's Papademetriou, "you engage these places, spend some money, rethink trade policy. But nowadays, 'security' trumps everything, and in this environment, you can't even mention such ideas. But of course they relate very directly to security if people are falling into criminal smuggling networks."

10. Consider the Security Implications of U.S. Foreign Policy In the end, migration and foreign policy analysts say, the best way to reduce the number of potential terrorists trying to enter the U.S. is not primarily a matter of immigration policy, but of foreign policy: That is, the focus needs to be not on reducing immigrants, but on reducing potential terrorists. In political terms, suggests Phyllis Bennis, author of Before & After: U.S. Foreign Policy and the September 11th Crisis, America is doing the opposite. As long as the U.S. is perceived as bringing death and disease to innocent people in Iraq, ignoring the plight of Palestinians, pursuing Saddam Hussein with unilateral bellicosity, and holding the rest in the world in contempt by withdrawing from international treaties, bin Laden will have an eager gallery to play to. Bennis is cautious to note that "no matter how drastically our government changes its policy, it can't eliminate the hostility of an Osama bin Laden." Nonetheless, she says, policies redressing these matters "would dramatically change the widespread support the attacks received in wide swatches of the world and dry up the breeding grounds for his recruits." The Department of Homeland Security—no matter how it is configured—cannot accomplish that crucial task.

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