Immigrants pour into US, unabated by war on terror

The State Department saw only a 4 percent dip in immigrant visas. The US still draws many from Mideast.

After the tragedy of Sept. 11, many Americans called for tighter immigration enforcement and border controls. Fewer immigrants, it was thought, could mean reduced danger from terrorists.

Perhaps surprisingly, the flow of immigrants, legal and illegal, into the United States appears to have fallen only barely.

"It remains at record levels," says Steven Camarota, research director of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), a think tank in Washington.

For some, it's an encouraging sign that the US is balancing stepped-up security with its tradition, dating back to the Pilgrims, of welcoming waves of newcomers. To others, the trend raises the prospect of too-rapid growth in decades to come.

Adding up the various classes of newcomers, about 1.5 million immigrants arrived in the US in 2001. This year, maybe 1.4 million will cross the borders, estimates Mr. Camarota. "If there is a reduction, it's very small."

At that rate, the nation's population will grow to some 450 million by 2050, up from 281 million in the 2000 census.

The pattern of current inflows is not uniform. The number of immigrant visas issued by the State Department at its offices in other nations is down from 632,000 in the 2001 fiscal year to 609,000 this year. The number of foreign students is up 6 percent.

But the number of foreign tourists arriving in the US this year is down decidedly from 2000, only even with 2001. And the number of nonimmigrant visas granted by US consulates abroad in nations where visas as well as passports are required to enter the US fell from 10 million in fiscal 2001 to 7.9 million in the year that ended Sept. 30.

Still, America remains a huge draw for foreigners hoping for a brighter economic future. The US economy, which contrasts starkly with the relative poverty in such nations as Mexico, the Philippines, China, and India, makes the US a strong draw. That remains true even for those living in the Mideast.

Each year, the US operates a "diversity" lottery for 50,000 visas. Of the 8 million that applied for these visas in the October 2001 lottery, 1.5 million lived in the Middle East.

Overall, at least a million immigrants will probably cross US borders legally this year. Perhaps 400,000 take illegal routes.

Changes aimed at detecting potential terrorists have been made in immigration practices. But to some analysts, these aren't nearly tough enough.

"We fail to act at our peril," says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the CIS. Cuts in immigration would "contribute significantly to improved security" by permitting more efficient management by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and other involved government agencies.

At the current level of admissions, the INS simply cannot handle the extra responsibilities piled on by Congress since 9/11, Mr. Krikorian says. These, he says, include developing an automated entry-exit visa tracking system for 500 million annual border crossings; developing a foreign-student tracking system; enforcing the requirement that millions of noncitizens report any change of address within 10 days; and fingerprinting, photographing, and tracking all visitors from Iran, Iraq, Sudan, and Libya, plus men ages 16 to 45 from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Yemen.

The events of Sep.t 11 raised the desire of a large majority of Americans to limit immigration and boosted those organizations seeking to put on the brakes.

But little was heard about restricting immigration during the congressional election campaign. Both Democrats and Republicans sought the votes of Hispanics and other populous immigrant communities. The Republican National Committee advised candidates to avoid the issue.

"The politics of the issue are very daunting," says Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington. Efforts to trim back immigration are opposed by groups benefiting from the swelling population, such as homebuilders and real estate agents. Those hiring immigrants also fight any reform, says Mr. Stein.

Foreign students face a shifting climate. They are supposed to go home after completing their studies. Many do and have often risen to high positions in their home nations. Others stay in the US, eventually making use of their new education.

Some of those wanting to get into US schools nowadays face greater difficulties. For instance, Middle Eastern males seeking student visas sometimes face new security checks that can take five weeks to six months, notes Danielle Guichard-Ashbrook, director of the international students office at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

These delays can be inconvenient, lasting beyond the start of school. A few MIT students from Russia, Canada, France, and elsewhere also faced security checks. Yet MIT has about 2,800 international students this year, perhaps 100 more than last year.

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