Commentary: Keep America's Gates Open. Just Watch Them Better

By Amy Borrus

The Twin Towers are gone. But still standing tall in New York Harbor is the Statue of Liberty, symbol of America's embrace of immigrants from around the world. Ever since September 11, though, the growing distrust of Middle Easterners is threatening the country's open-door policy. A mid-October CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found that 58% of adults surveyed wanted immigration reduced, a sharp rise from 41% just four months earlier.

In Washington, Congress has moved to toughen border controls, while President Bush on Oct. 29 announced that a foreign-terrorist task force would keep closer scrutiny over those on student and work visas. Some lawmakers are even calling for a temporary halt in issuing visas. Bush also has pushed to the back burner an initiative aimed at amnesty for millions of illegal Mexican workers and temporary work visas for thousands more Mexicans.

DRAGNET. No question, the U.S. needs to tighten up procedures for issuing visas and more closely monitor foreigners here (table). But yanking the welcome mat would be a mistake. True, a guest-worker program seems less urgent now that rising joblessness is dampening the need for workers. But before all foreigners get caught up in a dragnet atmosphere, it's important to make distinctions among the issues.

Legalizing some of the 8 million or so illegal aliens in the U.S. would not threaten national security. To the contrary, it would bring more people out of the shadows and establish a paper trail for them. Also, given the sheer numbers of foreigners entering the U.S. each day, Washington should put more resources into screening suspected wrongdoers before they reach the doorstep. "U.S. border security starts abroad," says Demetrios G. Papademetriou, co-director of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. "The best defense is good intelligence that's shared in a timely fashion" with U.S. consular officials overseas who review visa applications.

While tighter border controls are an understandable first reaction to September 11, they aren't an efficient way to keep out the bad guys. More than 350 million foreigners enter the U.S. annually, including thousands who live on one side of the border but work or shop on the other. Closer inspections at the Mexican border have created seven-hour waits, which isn't sustainable. "Trying to find a terrorist among the vast numbers of people who enter every day is enormously difficult," says Theresa Cardinal Brown, an immigration expert at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Similarly, fortifying border patrols to thwart anyone from sneaking in won't do much. The just-enacted anti-terrorism bill calls for a tripling of the 800-odd agents and inspectors on the 4,000-mile border with Canada. But the wave of illegal Mexican immigration in the 1990s occurred despite a threefold increase in patrol agents along the southern border, to nearly 9,000. If hundreds of thousands of poor Mexicans can sneak into the U.S. each year, so can a terrorist with a sophisticated support network.

Closer scrutiny beyond the borders is key. Better intelligence might have prevented many of the 19 suspected hijackers from entering the U.S. with legal visas. A 1996 law gave consular officials access to FBI and other databases of suspected terrorists. But in practice, intelligence and law enforcement agencies have shared watch lists sparingly. Bureaucratic rivalries are one reason. Police mistrust of consular staffers, who tend to be junior officials, is another. Until frontline officials have suspects' names, they won't know whom to look for.

SMART PASSPORTS. Better access to intelligence and law enforcement databases would also help to shorten inspection lines at borders and airports. In addition, inspectors should have facial-recognition and other advanced systems that make it easier to spot false passports. To help free up resources, the U.S., Canada, and Mexico could encourage frequent travelers to submit to background checks and obtain biometric data-based "smart" passports that would pre-clear them for speedy entry to NAFTA states.

While Congress is right to zero in on security, that's no reason to penalize all immigrants. Before September 11, Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox discussed legalizing the 4 million illegal Mexicans in the U.S. Granting them residency would give officials a better way to track any they thought to be suspect.

Given the porousness of U.S. borders and the volume of international traffic, sealing off the country would be a formidable task. The U.S. must balance national security needs with other values. "It would be a tragedy if we close the door on America's tradition of welcoming immigrants," says Daniel T. Griswold, an associate director at the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank. Let's not make immigration another casualty of the September 11 horror.

Borrus watches immigration issues from Washington.

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