Is it time to rethink American immigration policy in the face of a clear and present danger from foreign-born terrorists? Nearly eight out of 10 of those polled by the Center for Immigration Studies after the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon think so, including 74 percent of self-defined liberals. But what exactly can be done to prevent foreign-born terrorists from taking advantage of America's generous immigration laws?
First, the immigration debate of the last decade has been almost totally irrelevant to the threat we now face. The problem is not, as the anti-immigration crowd has tried for years to convince us, Mexican and other Latin immigrants taking "American" jobs, abusing our welfare system, and overpopulating our cities. We've beefed up our patrols along our border with Mexico in recent years, so that there is now one agent for every quarter-mile. But our border with Canada -- where at least two of the terrorists are believed to have entered the United States illegally -- is pitifully porous, with one agent for every 13 miles. And we've totally ignored the problem of tracking noncitizens once they've entered the United States legally.
Most of the terrorists who attacked on Sept. 11 entered the United States with valid temporary or student visas, just as millions of foreign visitors do each year. But once they passed immigration control at their port of entry, the terrorists could disappear, unmonitored, into American society. In 1996, Congress passed legislation requiring that all U.S. entries and exits be recorded, but the law was shelved last year. It's time to reactivate and enhance it.
Anyone who has traveled outside the United States knows that other countries are not nearly so blase when it comes to foreign travelers. When you check into a hotel in most countries abroad, you're asked to relinquish your passport temporarily so that local or national authorities can be notified of your presence. If you move hotels or travel to another city, you go through the same process in each place. But once a foreign visitor passes immigration control in the United States, he or she is free to travel where he or she chooses without any monitoring. Our only line of defense has been to require employers to check employees' eligibility to work once they are hired and to maintain their own records, which are never submitted to any government authority.
Congress should immediately enact legislation requiring all aliens in the United States to register with the government once a year and to notify the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) whenever they change their address. We used to require aliens to register at a U.S. post office each January but abandoned the requirement in the 1980s. Coupled with a tracking system to monitor entries and exits from the United States, such a system could provide law enforcement with an important tool in the fight against terrorism -- but only if it is properly implemented and integrated.
Other federal and state agencies should also be required to obtain information concerning aliens in the United States. Like most Americans, I was shocked to learn that several of the terrorists, including Mohammed Atta who was on an FBI terrorism watch list even before the attack, obtained a pilot's license from the Federal Aviation Administration. And other suspected terrorists, now in custody, may have obtained state truck drivers' licenses to transport hazardous materials. No commercial driver's license or pilot's license should be issued without proof of U.S. citizenship or a security check to ensure that noncitizens are in the country legally and not on any law enforcement watch lists.
These changes would require unprecedented cooperation and coordination from government agencies at various levels: federal, state and local. Unfortunately, the INS -- the front-line federal agency in this new effort -- is ill-equipped to handle such responsibilities. Congress and the administration should place a high priority on reorganizing the INS, transferring its law enforcement responsibilities to a new agency whose primary mission is protecting national security.
No doubt some will chafe at the suggestion that aliens should be treated differently from U.S. citizens. But living in the United States is a privilege, not a right for noncitizens. Law-abiding aliens have nothing to fear. Their safety -- indeed, that of everyone who lives or travels in the United States -- will be enhanced once these security measures are enacted.