Within three weeks of September 11, the Immigration and Naturalization Service moved forcefully to deport a foreign national closely linked to the destruction of the World Trade Center.
Unfortunately, the foreign national in question was the British wife of a man killed when the towers collapsed. Because she was a "dependent" on her husband's temporary visa, she became "illegal" upon his death. The automatic response of the INS bureaucrats was to inform her that she had to leave the country even though her children were U.S. citizens. Worse, both she and her husband would have had permanent resident status had an INS official not lost their file. On top of her husband's murder, she faced a Kafkaesque nightmare in dealing with federal immigration authorities.
That a law-abiding citizen of America's staunchest ally could be treated so callously boggles the mind of the average citizen. But the average American citizen is unfamiliar with the workings of the INS — easily the nation's most ineffective and counterproductive federal law enforcement agency. This is due partly to the massive bureaucratic failings of the agency itself, and partly to dangerously ill-conceived federal immigration law.
At about the same time the British woman was being threatened with deportation, the news began reporting that many of the perpetrators of the monstrous attack had been legally approved for temporary entry into the United States. Once in the country, however, the INS has no way to track the location or activities of foreign nationals.
The truth is that U.S. immigration law is usually applied against those who try to comply with it, and rarely against those who don't. Immigrants from developed countries, where law abidingness is a civic virtue, frequently present themselves to INS authorities only to be treated with incompetence or downright maliciousness. (The British citizen in question made the mistake of contacting the INS after September 11 to inquire about her status.) There's very little in the way of a domestic constituency to which the INS or the law is beholden.
We face two basic problems. First, immigration law is mind-numbingly complex and ill-suited to the protection of American interests. There are essentially two ways to immigrate legally and permanently to the United States — sponsorship by family, and sponsorship by employers. The former pays little attention to American interests, and the latter is complicated, expensive, and fraught with technicalities.
In the absence of an immediate relative, would-be immigrants must rely on employer sponsorship, which can take literally years. Most employers simply don't have the time, resources, or patience to do what it takes to bring in immigrants legally. Hence the millions of "illegals" in the United States today. It's not so much that they're scofflaws as that there is no way, practically speaking, for them to immigrate legally. American immigration policy is in effect a prohibition on those who seek to come legally, and an open door for those who don't.
Secondly, the INS has proved time and again to be incapable of effectively administering the laws. It's often the case that immigration inspectors or adjudicators are simply not equipped to interpret legislation that stands shoulder to shoulder with the tax code as the most complicated in existence.
Herewith, some modest proposals:
- We must immediately redraft immigration laws to take account of American economic, cultural, and security interests. Continue to give preference to high-skill workers. But the State Department, in cooperation with a revamped INS, should put certain countries on an "immigration watch list." This list would include countries that produce disproportionate numbers of individuals engaged in terrorist activities aimed at America's destruction.
- At present, countries on the list would be largely Islamic, and would include such nominal friends of the United States as Saudi Arabia. Nationals of these countries — whether they apply for temporary or permanent status — should undergo particularly close screening and have reporting requirements far beyond those of, say, Canadian nationals.
- We must also restructure the INS. President Bush, in fact, campaigned to do this, suggesting that the INS be divided into "service" and "enforcement" components. Such a division is critical in an atmosphere where spurious enforcement routinely trumps service for those who desperately try to abide by the law.
- Knowledgeable, courteous immigration professionals should decide immigration applications, while an expanded and invigorated enforcement arm would operate at and within U.S. borders to apprehend criminals and agents of enemy powers. September 11 certainly highlighted intelligence failures, but no intelligence will ever be good enough to deal with the problems created by a failed immigration system.