WASHINGTON — As a tool against terror, the Justice Department plans to offer visas and a shortcut to citizenship to those willing to inform on potential terrorists. The government has long used incentives, such as cash rewards, to solicit criminal evidence from informants. But dangling American citizenship in exchange for information diminishes its significance and sets bad precedent as well.
As part of the Responsible Cooperators Program, the government will offer a special "S visa" to any noncitizen who provides "useful and reliable" information about terrorists or terror attacks. The visa, which some are deriding as the "snitch visa," would allow recipients to remain in the United States for up to three years, during which time the holder could apply to become a permanent resident, putting them on the pathway to citizenship.
The Justice Department and other agencies undeniably need to be creative in rooting out terror, both at home and abroad. September's attacks shook the nation's sense of security, and vigorous law enforcement is justified as a way to restore it. But peddling citizenship as a police tool seems unworthy of a great nation, and may do more harm than good.
Further, the new initiative sits uneasily beside other administration actions affecting immigrants, such as the new anti-terror law, and the numerous interviews, round-ups, and deportations of noncitizens. These practices have unsettled many immigrants and raised anxieties about the future of multicultural America.
The government needs to build trust to be successful against terror. But it is sending a mixed message to immigrants that says, in essence, "We want you as valued citizens, but also as informers, and sometimes as suspects as well." Immigrants would have a right to be dubious of this latest idea.
When permanent residents enter to reside in the US through regular immigration channels, they enter as presumptive citizens. This presumption rests on the value we place on the principles of our entry system - that refugees deserve protection, that families should be united, and that the nation benefits from people with certain job skills.
There is strong evidence Americans believe in these criteria. When 1996 legislation disallowed welfare benefits for noncitizens, naturalizations soared. Critics complained that becoming a citizen for self-interested reasons cheapened the value of a patriotic act. The implication was that citizenship was a privilege bestowed on those who worked hard, paid taxes, and abided by the law.
Yet we would now create a new pathway to citizenship, not based on traditional merits, but on the willingness of a person to barter with the feds. Entry into the United States would be granted, or not granted, in the quid pro quo environment of FBI back rooms. It is possible that participants in the new initiative would be acting on patriotism and a desire to save American lives. But it is doubtful the gain in valuable information would justify tampering with as cherished a commodity as citizenship. Even the Justice Department admits it doesn't expect many takers.
What would be the motivations of people who decide to participate in the program? If they share information, they are at the mercy of the government and also risk putting themselves in danger among their peers. And do we want individuals who may, in theory, be associates or ex-colleagues of terrorists, or perhaps even "sleepers" themselves, becoming citizens?
The program raises several other troubling questions. For example, could future policy be made in a similar fashion by inviting informers against drug or organized crime rings to join the nation? Would informers be granted immunity from prosecution for past or future misdeeds?
We should stick to taking citizenship seriously. There are many people who care deeply about the value of citizenship, including immigrants who go through the lengthy naturalization process. We should not forfeit our national commitment to a diverse society by diminishing the process of joining it.
Audrey Singer is a visiting fellow at The Brookings Institution. Gregory Michaelidis is a senior policy analyst at The Hatcher Group.