Immigration focus shifts from economics to security

The terrorist tragedy in the United States has transformed the national debate on immigration.

"If it hasn't turned it 180 degrees, it has turned it 90 degrees," says Lamar Smith (R) of Texas, former head of the immigration subcommittee in the House of Representatives.

Before Sept. 11, the immigration-policy debate centered around economics (its negative impact on less-educated workers), business (the perceived need for immigrants to labor on farms and in restaurants and hotels), and environment (the thesis that immigrants are crowding America's highways, parks, and cities, and adding to pollution.)

Now the emphasis is on the need to better control the nation's borders as a matter of security.

Advocates of more control note that at least 12 of the 19 terrorists in the Sept. 11 attack entered the country legally on some form of temporary visa - tourist, business, or student.

"The defense of our nation begins with the defense of our borders," Rep. Tom Tancredo stated last week. He was proposing 15 measures for tightening the nation's border security.

The Colorado Republican heads an Immigration Reform Caucus in the House. It has doubled its membership, to 30, since the attack on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon.

He would like to attach some of his measures to a current bill before the House, perhaps an economic stimulus package.

"Realistically," Mr. Smith says, immigration reform has a good chance only next year.

The change in national mood has been seen by public-policy groups that advocate tighter controls and fewer immigrants.

"People are much more interested in what we have to say," says Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, based in Washington. "But it is at too high a price."

"Sept. 11 has struck a huge blow to corporatist global forces that had had their way before the attack," says Craig Nelsen, founder of ProjectUSA, a group based in Astoria, N.Y., that campaigns to cut back immigration.

Mr. Nelsen says both contributions to ProjectUSA and traffic on its website have doubled.

Roy Beck, executive director of Numbers USA, another group wanting to trim immigration from its current level in excess of 1 million a year to "more traditional levels," notes that Sept. 11 has prompted the White House to "step away from loud cheering" for the idea of opening the borders to Mexico for even more immigration.

Not more than 200,000 immigrants per year should be the limit, suggests Mr. Stein.

A Zogby International poll, conducted in late September for the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, found that virtually all segments of American society overwhelmingly (76 percent) feel the country is not doing enough to screen those entering the US and control its borders.

Congress has passed legislation in the past that would tighten border controls. But much of it is not enforced by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). That's often at the behest of the White House or Congress in their efforts to please constituents.

For instance, the INS admits that 300,000 aliens in the country who have been issued deportation orders simply vanished inside the country, rather than being sent across the borders.

The INS has only 2,000 investigative officers in the nation to track down these disappeared foreigners and enforce the law. "This is a backlog way beyond what the INS is capable of handling," says Nelsen.

He's encouraged, however, by the fact that South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon has requested US Attorney General John Ashcroft to deputize a group of South Carolinian law-enforcement officers to aid the INS in battling illegal immigration.

His request is the first usage of a 1996 law permitting the training of state and local police to enforce immigration law. "We can fight terrorism through the creation of a nationwide coalition to enforce the immigration laws," stated Mr. Condon. "Local law-enforcement officers run into illegal immigrants all the time," says Nelsen.

Mr. Stein suspects the INS could "easily use $50 billion or more" to properly enforce immigration laws and manage borders.

Up to now, such strict enforcement has been resisted by a multitude of special interests with the ear of Congress.

Onion farmers want cheap, easily managed labor. Meat packing plants say Americans won't fill their tough jobs. Ethnic groups want their families and friends admitted. Religions quietly push for admission of foreign adherents. Civil rights groups want aliens given the same legal protections as American citizens.

Another big obstacle to tighter borders has been the lack of a national identification system that is difficult to forge and computerize for reference at the borders.

The balance between privacy needs and security provisions is difficult. "People in the intelligence community think we are living in a land of fantasy," says Stein.

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