INS, State were warned to work together against terrorists

A report issued by the Justice Department’s inspector general in March 1998 warned that the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service were not doing enough to track down people who overstay temporary visas.

A report issued by the Justice Department's inspector general in March 1998 warned that the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs, which issues visas, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which enforces their terms, were not doing enough to track down people who overstay temporary visas. The report also noted that the United States' border with Canada was an easy crossing point for terrorists.

The report's conclusions demonstrate that the INS and State, as well as their overseers in Congress, knew of these potential dangers long before the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on Sept. 11.

Law enforcement officials investigating last week's terrorist strikes in New York have said that at least 16 of the 19 suspected terrorists entered the United States on legal business and travel visas, allowing them to work, go to school, or simply travel. Several of the suspects overstayed their visas.

Two of the suspects-Khalid Al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhamzi-were placed on terrorist watch lists soon after their entry into the United States, and at least two suspects crossed the border from Canada at a small border entry in Coburn Gore, Maine, which is usually staffed by only one border inspection officer, according to a report in The Washington Post. The paper reported that another suspect appears to have slipped into the country from Canada at a border crossing at Jackman, Maine, one of the four busiest land entry ports in the state, while one or more may have come by ferry from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia to Maine.

The inspector general's report, "Bombs In Brooklyn: How the Two Illegal Aliens Arrested for Plotting to Bomb the New York Subway Entered and Remained in the United States," detailed the story of Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer and Lafi Khalil, two Palestinian men who were arrested in Brooklyn, N.Y., on July 31, 1997, and accused of planning to bomb the New York City subway system. Mezer was convicted later that year and sentenced to life in prison. Khalil was acquitted of the terrorism charge, but convicted of having a fake immigration card. He was sentenced to three years in prison and ordered deported.

Before his arrest in Brooklyn, Mezer had been stopped three times in the previous 13 months attempting to enter Washington state illegally from Canada. The first two times he was returned to Canada. After the third apprehension, the INS began formal deportation proceedings against him, but he was released on bond while the proceeding was pending. He fled to New York.

Prior to his third hearing, Mezer applied for asylum, stating that he was wrongly suspected of being a member of the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas. Following standard procedures, the INS sought comments from the State Department regarding Mezer's application for asylum.

According to the IG report, INS immigration judges and asylum officers were operating under the assumption that State would check its database for evidence of Mezer's association with terrorist groups, but State does not normally perform these checks without a specific request to do so, and did not in Mezer's case.

"The INS has access to databases with some information about suspected terrorists, but it is not clear that the INS consistently checks these databases before asylum decisions are made," the IG reported. "We believe that this case reveals that the INS and the State Department need to coordinate more closely on appropriate procedures for accessing and sharing information that would suggest a detained alien or asylum applicant may be a terrorist." The INS also does not have a centralized database recording all immigration-related apprehensions along the country's border with Canada, the report said.

Mezer's case highlights "the difficulty in controlling illegal immigration into the United States. [It] also reveals the shortage of Border Patrol resources available along the Northwest border," the report added. "Aliens entering the United States illegally along the Northwest border are rarely prosecuted, even after repeated apprehensions… and they are normally returned to Canada voluntarily, able to try again at any time to return to the United States."

The INS detained only about 12,000 people trying to cross the border illegally from Canada last year, compared with more than 1.6 million from Mexico.

The other man arrested, Khalil, had entered the United States with a C-1 transit visa, allowing him to stay in the United States for up to 29 days while en route from the Palestinian-controlled West Bank of Israel to Ecuador. Khalil arrived in the United States on Dec. 6, 1996, but never continued his journey to Ecuador, renting an apartment in Brooklyn with Mezer instead.

According to the IG report, the State Department's consular officer in Israel, who issued Khalil's visa, "did not check Khalil's representations, require him to show a ticket to Ecuador or ask for evidence of sufficient funds for the trip to Ecuador. Nor did the consular officer consider requiring Khalil to travel through the United States to Ecuador in a "transit without visa" status, which would have allowed Khalil to go to the United States to catch a connecting flight to Ecuador, but would have required him to remain in the airport… Neither the immigration inspector nor the consular officer thought it was his or her role to verify that Khalil had a ticket to Ecuador or funds for the trip."

When Khalil overstayed his visa, no INS officer sought to find him because of the large number of illegal aliens in the United States, the report said.

Michael Bromwich, the inspector general who issued the report and who is now a partner at the law firm of Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson, said he was "not aware of any substantial success in improving" cooperation between State's Consular Affairs division and the INS since the report was issued.

Likewise, Bromwich said the INS was doing little to enforce visa time limits, and continues to be understaffed at the Canadian border. "There's a shockingly small cohort of inspectors to enforce a border that is hundreds of miles long," he said.

About 300 INS border patrol agents guard the 4,000-mile border (excluding Alaska) between the United States and Canada, according to the most recent INS statistics, which date to 1999.

INS spokeswoman Nicole Chulick said she was not familiar with the "Bombs in Brooklyn" report, and could not comment on steps taken by the INS in response since 1998. Four other INS officials called by Government Executive did not return phone calls, or declined to comment.

An aide with the House Judiciary Immigration Subcommittee, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that an immigration reform measure enacted in 1996 contained a provision requiring greater cooperation between the INS and State on tracking down foreign visitors who overstay their visas. But members of Congress representing border districts pushed through a modification of that provision a couple years later, fearing that it would hamper tourism along the Canadian border, said the aide.