MOHAMMED SALAMEH, a suspect in the World Trade Center explosion, entered the United States on a six-month tourist visa in 1988. Five years later, he was still here. The reason: Like many others, he had found a way to abuse the immigration system.
Over the past five years, Mr. Salameh has applied for immigration amnesty under a variety of programs he was never eligible for. Once he had applied, however, he was guaranteed work permits and amnesty until the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) could rule on his applications.
A similar technicality apparently allowed Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, a radical Muslim cleric who worshipped at the same mosque as Salameh, to remain in the US even after the government had determined that his application for asylum had been fraudulently obtained.
In Salameh's case, it took the INS nearly five years to decide he was not eligible for any of the programs he had applied for.
Salameh's initial foray into the US immigration system came only five months after he moved to the US. He applied for amnesty under a 1986 law that set up the Special Agricultural Worker (SAW) program. That program permitted illegal immigrants who worked in agriculture between 1984 and 1986 to apply for amnesty. Even though Salameh was not in the US until after 1986, he applied under SAW and was allowed to remain in the US until the case was resolved.
Salameh was not alone. Immigration lawyers report that people who entered the US as late as 1992 applied for amnesty under the 1986 law, formally known as the Immigration Reform and Control Act. There are still thousands of cases pending.
"Congress did not foresee the level of fraud would be unbelievably high," says Edwin Rubin, a Newark, N.J., lawyer and former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming, a leading congressional expert on immigration, said in an interview that it is a "terribly abused program."
In New Jersey, for example, criminal rings sold falsified documents which stated the individual had worked on a farm. Senator Simpson says people claiming to be agricultural workers could not answer a simple question, such as, Where do watermelons grow? "They thought watermelons grow on trees," Simpson recounts.
While the government initially expected to get 350,000 amnesty applications, 1.3 million poured in. A report by the Commission on Agricultural Workers issued in early March found that, to date, over 1 million applications had been approved. But INS lawyers believe that at least 700,000 of those were fraudulent.
While the INS was trying to cope with the applications, a judge ruled that the INS rules on another program - which legalized workers who had been in the country before 1982 - were too restrictive. The INS was forced to reopen the application period. With the court-ordered extensions, Mr. Rubin says, "this program has created dozens of millionaires," as lawyers and shady operators found ways to sell false documentation or just collect filing fees.
Just before the INS denied Salameh amnesty status under SAW - three years after he applied - he applied for the other amnesty program. It took the INS another 15 months to deny his second application.
It's unclear how Salameh even obtained a tourist visa. He was only 19 years old, unmarried, and reportedly making $50 a month in Jordan. There is apparently no way to find out how he received his visa, since the records on visas are destroyed after one year. A US consular official says, "We don't automatically refuse entry because of a low income. Possibly he presented what looked like adequate income.... Possibly someone took a chance on him and blew it."
Normally, the details of an individual's immigration file are considered confidential. But the Newark (N.J.) Star Ledger reported the details of Salameh's case on March 10. The next day, the INS confirmed the newspaper's account.
The Star Ledger quoted anonymous INS officials as saying they were convinced Salameh's application was "a work of fiction but there was nothing we could do about it." That is because, under the SAW amnesty program, no one could be deported on the basis of his application unless criminal fraud was involved. And, according to INS lawyers, the Justice Department, which has the responsibility for prosecuting criminal fraud, decided to go after criminal rings, not individuals.
The only way the INS could have deported Salameh was to wait for him to break the law or to catch him during a random raid. It never did find him, and now he is charged in connection with the World Trade Center bombing, which killed five people and injured more than 1,000.
Duke Austin, an INS spokesman, defends his agency by noting that it annually inspects 21 million people entering the US on temporary visas. Half a million of them overstay their visas, he says. "Once they enter with a valid visa, no one tracks them as they move about the country. The US is an open society," he says.
Simpson says the problems are compounded by an efficient underground information network. "People know which programs to gimmick," he says.