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At War

Critics say immigration tactics threaten security


Heavy-handed enforcement of immigration laws designed to unearth terrorist cells within U.S. Muslim communities is backfiring and makes Americans more susceptible to attack, according to some immigration and national security experts.

That critique of the ongoing crackdown on Middle Easterners who overstay visas or who otherwise violate U.S. immigration laws is widely shared by civil libertarians and advocates for the undocumented, who argue that the Justice Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s approach to apprehending terrorists within U.S. borders is wrongheaded. (In March, the functions of the Immigration and Naturalization Service were subsumed into the Department of Homeland Security under two new bureaus: the Border and Transportation Security Directorate and the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.)

But another voice in the debate is being increasingly heard: Security experts who warn that the government is missing the terrorist forest for the immigration trees.

Secret detentions, deportations and registration requirements targeted to citizens of 25 mostly Muslim countries have “alienated a lot of these communities, caused a great deal of fear and reinforced the tendency of immigrant communities to huddle together and not trust authorities, which works against intelligence gathering by law enforcement, particularly the FBI,” said Vincent Cannistraro, former director of Counterterrorism Operations and Analysis at the Central Intelligence Agency.

“The idea that you stigmatize whole classes of people and profile them because you think this is going to prevent the next terrorist attack is exactly the wrong way [to go about it],” Cannistraro told NCR. “There may very well be another clandestine al-Qaeda cell in North America, but none of these methodologies has contributed to identifying them,” Cannistraro said.

Critics of the administration’s approach point to more than 60 administrative actions taken by the Justice Department and the INS over the past 19 months, including expanded detention without charges, closed immigration hearings, coordinated arrests of illegal aliens working at airports and other sensitive security sites, and a gag order that prevents state authorities from releasing information on detainees.

As a recent part of the government’s effort, foreign-born, non-citizen males age 16 or over from countries considered high-risk terrorist exporters must register at “a designated immigration office.” The deadline for Pakistani and Saudi Arabian males was March 21, while citizens of Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan and Kuwait have until April 25. Those registering will be photographed, fingerprinted and interviewed under oath, according to the immigration officials.

Rather than face deportation, hundreds of non-residents who have overstayed their visas -- most of them natives of Pakistan -- have applied to Canada for refugee status. They are being assisted and housed by the Salvation Army in Vermont.

The rationale for the crackdown was stated by Attorney General John Ashcroft soon after Sept. 11: “Aggressive detention of lawbreakers and material witnesses is vital to preventing, disrupting or delaying new attacks. It is difficult for a person in jail or under detention to murder innocent people or to aid or abet in terrorism.”

And there are those who say the Ashcroft approach hasn’t gone far enough. “The immigration measures taken since 9/11 are small steps in the right direction, for the most part, but remain woefully inadequate,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. “Immigration enforcement is one of the best tools for tripping up terrorists because if you are coming here to commit an act of terrorism and your visa expires, you’re not going to say, ‘Oh, my visa expired and I have to go back to my home country and give up my dreams of terrorism.’ You’re going to do whatever it takes, even if it includes violating immigration law.”

To Don Kerwin, executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, aggressive immigration enforcement as an antiterror tool is unproductive overkill. “A lot of the security measures have targeted undocumented people and that’s not a very efficient way to go about it because the lion’s share of the undocumented come from Mexico, Central America and South America -- and they’re not your al-Qaeda producing countries.” The administration’s approach, said Kerwin, “doesn’t catch the right people and it drives the people you ought to be befriending underground or pushes them to Canada, and that is counterproductive as a long-term strategy.”

The registration effort, said Kerwin, is particularly punitive. “It’s not just registration. It’s arrest and detention and deportation. It would be a little bit different if it was in a different climate, where the FBI was trying to befriend immigrant communities, where it was asking people to come voluntarily forward, and if there was a firewall between immigration enforcement and this particular program, but that’s not what’s happening.”

Meanwhile, the crackdown has negatively affected one group of potential immigrants most everyone agrees are unlikely to engage in terrorism: displaced people fleeing political or religious persecution in their home countries. The number of refugees entering the United States has dropped from 72,000 in 2000 to 26,000 last year, and will fall far short of the ceiling of 50,000 approved by the president for this year.

“Terrorists have used every other component of the immigration system, whether it’s temporary visas, permanent visas, the asylum system, sneaking across the border, coming through airports or land crossing,” Krikorian said. “The only thing terrorists seem never to have done is come here as resettled refugees. It’s ironic that the one flow of immigrants that was substantially reduced after 9/11 is the only immigrant flow that has never contributed a terrorist to the U.S.”

Following Sept. 11, the government suspended its refugee resettlement program, explained Mark Franken, director of migration and refugee services for the U.S. bishops’ conference. But even with the moratorium lifted, concerns about security (combined with a generally understaffed process) have stymied refugee resettlement, he said.

Now, said Franken, the cumbersome process of checking refugee backgrounds against government security databases has slowed resettlement to a crawl. “Until there is a response from that [security] process, no refugee can move,” said Franken. And in many cases, he continued, “there’s just no response” -- requests between government agencies frequently “go unanswered.”

Franken, too, sees irony. “We are talking about … the very people who are fleeing the terrorists and the regimes we are at war against.”

From his perspective, former CIA anti-terror chief Cannistraro says the focus on undocumented aliens as terrorists will get worse before it gets better. The policy, said Cannistraro, is driven by Ashcroft, not Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge or others likely “to have a more balanced approach.”

Said Cannistraro: “The issue is extremism and John Ashcroft, in this policy of trying to put in place legal barriers to terrorism in the United States, is an extremist.”

Meanwhile, says Krikorian, asserting control over U.S. borders is “like quitting smoking or ripping off your Band-Aid: It’s not without a certain amount of pain. And the people who are going to suffer that pain are the illegal aliens and the businesses that have been employing them. And that’s just the way it is.”

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

Related Web sites

Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services

Catholic Legal Immigration Network

Center for Immigration Studies

Department of Justice

Department of Homeland Security

U.S. Bishops’ Office of Migration and Refugee Services

National Catholic Reporter, March 28, 2003