Immigration: A Matter of National Security

Our country was forever changed on September 11, 2001. Because the terrorist acts were committed by people who were in the United States temporarily with valid visas, immigration suddenly emerged as a hot topic of discussion. In 2001 alone, a total of 32.8 million people came to the U.S. from other countries. Immigration is now clearly a security issue rather than just a social or economic issue.

Our country was forever changed on September 11, 2001. Because the terrorist acts were committed by people who were in the United States temporarily with valid visas, immigration suddenly emerged as a hot topic of discussion. In 2001 alone, a total of 32.8 million people came to the U.S. from other countries. Immigration is now clearly a security issue rather than just a social or economic issue. On November 25, 2002, President Bush signed into law The Homeland Security Act of 2002 (PL 107-296), thereby creating the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The Senate confirmed former Representative and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge as the Secretary of this new department. On March 1, 2003, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was abolished and DHS was put in charge of our immigration functions. The INS was an agency in trouble with growing backlogs and scandals, saddled with a public perception of inefficiency and ineptitude. The continued lack of appropriate funding almost certainly was a contributing factor to its demise. The Homeland Security Act radically restructured our nation’s immigration functions.

Directorate of Border and Transportation Security

The Act establishes this directorate and the position of Undersecretary for Border and Transportation Security. The Senate confirmed Asa Hutchinson to be the Undersecretary, responsible for preventing the entry of terrorists in the U.S., securing the borders and carrying out the immigration enforcement functions of the former INS, which included Border Patrol, detention and removal, intelligence, investigations and inspections. In addition, the Undersecretary is charged with establishing national immigration enforcement policies and priorities, and establishing and administering rules governing the granting of visas. Two separate enforcement bureaus were created:
The Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (BICE). The BICE is in charge of interior enforcement and becomes the principal investigative agency in DHS. It is made up of about 14,000 employees from the former INS, U.S. Customs Service and the Federal Protective Service.
The Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (BCBP). The BCBP focuses on border enforcement and inspections and has about 30,000 employees, including inspectors from the former INS, U.S. Customs, the Agricultural Quarantine Inspections and the Border Patrol. The Bureau supervises the movement of people and goods across the borders and is charged with ensuring consistent inspection procedures and coordinated border enforcement. BCBP agents will now adjudicate immigration issues at our borders, and the education of those agents is a top priority.

Bureau of Citizenship & Immigration Services (BCIS)

The BCIS is headed by Director Eduardo Aguirre, Jr., who reports to the Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security, Gordon England. Before Mr. England’s confirmation, he was most recently Secretary of the Navy and Executive Vice President of General Dynamics Corporation. The Director is responsible for the adjudication of all petitions previously adjudicated by the INS, including asylum and refugee applications. The BCIS employs about 15,000 people. The Act also establishes a Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman. This individual also reports directly to the Deputy Secretary and is responsible for assisting individuals and employers who are experiencing problems with the BCIS by identifying problem areas at the Bureau and proposing administrative changes. The focus is to improve processing times and the delivery of immigration benefits to people who are entitled to those benefits. The BCIS also has information about the reorganization of the immigration function on its Web site at www.immigration.gov.

The Issuance of Visas

Where the Department of State (DOS) was previously charged with visa issuance, the Act exclusively vests the Secretary of Homeland Security with the authority to administer all laws and to issue regulations relating to the functions of consular officers in the granting and refusal of visas. The Secretary has the authority to develop programs of homeland security training for consular officers. The Act also mandates that information on visa denials be entered into an electronic database established under the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act. Whenever a consular officer denies a visa, the fact of the denial, the basis of the denial, and the name of the person denied are entered into the database. It is obvious that the identification of high-risk individuals who seek to enter our country is a top priority and the various immigration agencies and the DOS must now share intelligence and law enforcement data.

One of the biggest challenges will be the close coordination of BCIS, BICE and BCBP. It is also vital that the three agencies be sufficiently funded. In his proposed budget for fiscal year 2004, President Bush wants to allocate $36.2 billion for the DHS. Of that money, $500 million is to be designated to improve immigration services, including reducing the backlog and creating an online filing system. At the same time, plans are under way to reduce the number of local immigration offices by consolidating those offices.

Most immigration-related bills coming out of Congress these days deal with security issues. There have been many new regulations and policies adopted since September 11, 2001, focusing mainly on the defense of our nation, and these regulations have severely impacted immigrants. We have seen the implementation of the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS). This program requires foreign national nonimmigrants (people who enter the U.S. temporarily for a specific purpose) who are either from certain countries or who fit certain profiles to register as they enter and depart the United States. NSEERS also includes a “call-in” component requiring certain nonimmigrants from specific countries to register at a designated immigration office. There are sanctions in place for those who do not register.

Schools are now mandated to use the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), an Internet-based system that maintains accurate and current information on nonimmigrant students, exchange visitors and their dependents. SEVIS enables schools and program sponsors to transmit electronic information and event notifications via the Internet to the BCIS and DOS throughout a student or exchange visitor’s stay in the United States. The system will reflect international student or exchange visitor status changes, such as admission, change of address, change in program of study, and other details, such as failure of a student to enroll. Approximately one million foreign students and exchange visitors come to the U.S. each year, and SEVIS is expected to help authorities keep track of them more closely.

Undocumented aliens remain one of our biggest security risks. U.S.-Mexico talks about a possible guest worker program or earned adjustment to permanent residence were well on their way when the terrorist attacks of September 11 occurred. Now, nobody is eager to resume the dialogue in light of current events in the world.

Here is a sample of what immigration-related legislation recently has been introduced in the 108th Congress:

  • H.R. 1121, the Driver’s License Integrity Act of 2003, would limit the period of validity of driver’s licenses and state identification cards issued to nonimmigrants to the period of validity of the applicant’s nonimmigrant visa.
  • H.R. 946, the Mass Immigration Reduction Act of 2003, would establish a moratorium on immigration beginning on October 1, 2003, and ending on September 30 of the first fiscal year after fiscal year 2008 during which the President submits a report to Congress that the flow of illegal immigration has been reduced to less than 10,000 aliens per year. In addition, that report has to indicate that any increase in legal immigration resulting from termination of the moratorium would have no adverse impact on the wages and working conditions of U.S. citizens, federal environmental quality standards, or the capacity of various public institutions to serve their resident populations.
  • H.R. 687, the Identification Integrity Act of 2003, would prohibit the federal government from accepting any form of identification issued by a foreign government with the exception of a passport.
  • H.R. 488, the Terror Immigration Elimination Act of 2003, would limit the issuance of student and diversity immigrant visas to aliens who are nationals of Saudi Arabia, or of other countries that support terrorism, or countries not cooperating fully with United States anti-terrorism efforts.
  • H.R. 152, the Immigration Adjustment Act of 2003, would provide for the adjustment of status of certain aliens with long-standing ties to the U.S. To be eligible, aliens would have to establish that they entered the U.S. before January 1, 2001, and have resided continuously here immediately preceding the five-year period ending on the date on which they become eligible for adjustment under the bill.
  • S. 205, the Iraqi Scientist Immigration Act of 2003, would authorize the issuance of immigrant visas to, and the admission to the U.S. for permanent residence of, certain scientists, engineers and technicians who have worked in the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction programs.
  • S. 22, the Justice Enhancement and Domestic Security Act of 2003, is a massive domestic security measure containing provisions that would: authorize funds for additional immigration personnel and technology; provide statutory authority for the President to use military tribunals to try suspected terrorists in certain circumstances; and close existing loopholes in the U.S. immigration system that have allowed war criminals and human rights abusers to enter and remain in the country.

Draft legislation prepared by the Department of Justice entitled the “Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003” (also known as PATRIOT Act II), was recently leaked to the public. The draft legislation contains a number of provisions that would diminish significantly the due process rights of lawful permanent residents and other noncitizens. Under the pretext of fighting terrorism and enhancing homeland security, the draft legislation proposes to enhance criminal penalties for minor immigration violations, expand the Attorney General’s authority to bar and remove noncitizens from the U.S. on national security grounds, and authorize removal of aliens even to countries whose governments are not recognized by the United States. It would also authorize secret arrests, open immigration files to local police and strip U.S. citizenship for associational activities.

This country was made great by the influx of many immigrants from all over the world, thereby creating a melting pot of diverse cultures. We must assess our rich heritage carefully in balancing the need for security with the due process rights of citizens and noncitizens alike. Let not our vision of meaningful immigration be forever clouded by national security.