2001 — the year in review:
A new look at USA’s porous borders
In the months prior to Sept. 11, the nation’s immigration and border control problems were much as they have been in the past — focused primarily on keeping Mexican nationals on their side of the line. But that was then.
Now, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, few if any policies regarding foreigners have failed to come under intense scrutiny. All 19 men involved in the four hijackings had entered the United States on valid visas, but two had overstayed their limit and one did not comply with the visa’s requirements. Since Sept. 11, a crackdown has been implemented on those whose have violated the terms of the visas, particularly those granted to students; the nation’s border with Canada has been massively fortified, and a visa-waiver program with countries considered “low risk” is being reassessed.
Agents with the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s San Diego regional office arrested 10 students in December from Middle Eastern or central Asian countries in what one official described as an initial application of the new policy. The students were said to have either not been properly enrolled in accredited institutions or had overstayed their visas. Their cases will be handled by special immigration courts. The sweep, which concentrated on students from Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Pakistan, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Yemen, was done with the cooperation of local universities. It was the result of a survey of just 35 of the 280 certified institutions in San Diego and Imperial counties. One student was released after it was found that the school provided incorrect information. “We plan to continue to do this,” one INS official told The New York Times. “This is the first phase.”
In December, the INS began entering the names of 314,000 immigrants who have violated their visas and have final deportation orders against them into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) data base. The system has never been used for this purpose, although the INS had previously entered the names of some 125,000 immigrants with criminal records into the data base. “This is going to give us a better opportunity to find these folks,” said Bill Strassberger, an INS spokesman. Should local law enforcement find a visa violator while doing an NCIC check, he said, they will need to contact immigration authorities.
Under a pact signed by the U.S. and Canada last month, the two nations will share information on arrivals to major airports to identify as early as possible people to be placed on watch lists. The pact will also force refugees to seek asylum in the country of their arrival rather than the most accommodating nation, and both countries will work to develop “smart” travel documents using eye scans and other high-tech identification methods. The agreement was signed by Attorney General John Ashcroft in Ottawa on Dec. 3, one day after an announcement that 400 National Guard troops would be stationed along the 4,000-mile border. Military helicopters will also patrol rural areas.
Later that month, a declaration between Canada and the U.S. was signed which calls for a 30-point “action plan” that includes intelligence sharing, passenger information on flights between the two countries and visa coordination. Officials also agreed to conduct a joint anti-terrorism exercise in 2003.
A visa-waiver pilot program instituted in 1988, which allows foreigners from a number of countries to bypass the visa process, came under scrutiny in October. The system permits visitors from 29 countries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and South America to fill out forms en route to the U.S. and thereby quickly pass through Customs upon arrival. The program reportedly has created a black market for stolen or fraudulent passports from visa-waiver countries. One of those convicted in the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 entered the United States in this manner. Despite this, however, the program was made permanent by Congress last year. Said Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D.-Texas): “We were operating within the framework of the time. The various fractures of the program were not considered so overwhelming that they couldn’t be fixed with pending legislation.” Jackson called for an immediate hearing to determine whether the system should be “eliminated, downsized or further restricted.”
Orange County, Calif., law enforcement authorities in November will allow police to cite and release people accused of minor offenses if they can show identity cards issued by the Mexican consulate as proof of their citizenship.
The Nassau County, N.Y., Police Department teamed up with the U.S. Coast Guard in December to patrol the local waterways. While the two agencies have joined forces in the past for search-and-rescue efforts, this would mark the first time that personnel will be frequenting each other’s watercraft. They will also share intelligence.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs and law enforcement from Hot Springs County, Wyo., and the cities of Lander and Riverton, reached an agreement in January with the Shoshone and Arapaho tribes allowing police to make arrests at the Wind River Indian Reservation without jurisdictional concerns.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service announced in November that it would hire an additional 75 agents to patrol Michigan’s border crossings with Canada. There are currently 55 inspectors posted at the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel and bridges in Detroit, Port Huron and Sault Ste. Marie. A report by a Senate subcommittee in July found Detroit’s border crossing insufficiently staffed. A total of 174 inspectors are needed at the Ambassador Bridge and Detroit-Windsor Tunnel; there are currently 23.
The United States agreed in September to supply three more surveillance helicopters and 75 more INS agents to an area along the Arizona border known as the “devil’s corridor,” to ensure that illegal aliens left stranded in the desert by smugglers do not die of exposure. In May, more than a dozen were killed when they were left without water in a region where temperatures soared to 115 degrees. Additional patrols by both U.S. and Mexican authorities will automatically be triggered when the temperature reaches 100 degrees.