Were terrorists to sneak across our border today and need a place to hide, a rational analysis of U.S. immigration enforcement would point them toward Tulsa, Okla. There is little chance the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would look for them there.
The U.S. government rarely enforces immigration laws in Tulsa -- even though the government says there are tens of thousands of illegal aliens in Oklahoma. This could begin changing, however, if House Republicans get their way in ongoing negotiations with the Senate over the final language of the intelligence reform bill being crafted in response to the 9/11 Commission report.
Led by House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner, House Republicans put strong immigration enforcement provisions in the House version of this bill. These include:
-- Doubling the Border Patrol from 10,000 to 20,000 agents.
-- Tripling ICE investigations officers, who enforce immigration laws in the interior of the country, from 2,000 to 6,000.
-- Mandating that one-half of the new ICE investigations officers be assigned to enforcing immigration laws in the workplace.
-- Guaranteeing that each state gets at least three new ICE officers.
-- Increasing the authority of the Department of Homeland Security to quickly deport illegal aliens from countries other than Mexico rather than release them into the United States pending protracted immigration court proceedings.
The problem House Republicans are trying to solve is exemplified by recent experiences in Tulsa, whose Republican congressman, Rep. John Sullivan, has introduced his own bill that would specifically direct ICE to open an office in that city.
Sullivan was inspired to offer his legislation by a series of events that began just before dawn on July 17, 2002. That is when Tulsa County sheriff's deputies stopped a van packed with 18 people on Interstate 44. "After it was stopped, they found all occupants to be illegal aliens," Tulsa County Capt. Bill Bass later told the Tulsa World. "None of them had the credentials to be in the U.S."
The illegal aliens told the deputies they were headed to Chicago. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (whose enforcement division is now part of ICE) told the deputies to let the illegal aliens go. It was "a little bewildering," Capt. Bass told the World.
At the time, the INS had only two enforcement officers in Oklahoma, and they were stationed in Oklahoma City, more than 100 miles from Tulsa. The agency issued a statement explaining that because of "limited resources at the time, agents in the Oklahoma INS office were unable to respond."
Rep. Sullivan was outraged but determined to take constructive action. He worked to increase the number of agents in Oklahoma City to six.
This was still a relatively meager number of immigration law enforcement officers for the state. According to a 2003 INS study, there were 46,000 illegal aliens in Oklahoma in the year 2000. If the number remained constant, and six immigration law enforcement officers were deployed in the state at all times, it would mean immigration law enforcement would be out-manned by illegal aliens there by about 7,666-to-one.
So, guess what?
Just before midnight on Sept. 21, police from the Tulsa suburb of Catoosa stopped a truck for speeding on Interstate 44. There were 18 people on board, including teen-agers. Only two had valid identification. The others were suspected of being illegal aliens. One was arrested for possessing a substance thought to be cocaine. ICE told the police to let the rest go.
The Tulsa World reported: "Because no holding facility was available, [ICE regional spokesman Carl] Rusnok said, the individuals would have had to stay out on the road for several more hours before an agent could arrive at the scene. 'That's just geography,' he said."
More than three years after Sept. 11, 2001, Tulsa, Okla. -- in the heart of the heartland -- remains beyond the perimeter of U.S. immigration enforcement.
But California Rep. Jane Harman, ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, wants to strip some of the House Republican immigration proposals from the intelligence bill. "We're all for stronger border controls and security measures at the border," she said at an Oct. 22 press conference, "but we feel that a lot of these extraneous provisions have to be removed."
House Republicans are willing to make reasonable compromises, but advocates of their approach point to a 9/11 Commission staff report on immigration and border security. "The first problem encountered by those concerned about terrorists was an almost complete lack of enforcement resources," says the report. "Neither the White House, the Congress, the Department of Justice, nor the INS leadership ever provided the support needed for INS enforcement agents to find, detain and remove illegal aliens, including those with terrorist associations."
House Republicans want to make certain this never happens again -- in Tulsa or anywhere else. Will the Senate stand with them?