Lawmakers press INS to find way to track foreigners

Ahmed Alghamdi was just the sort of foreigner who is now causing lawmakers the most worry. He legally entered the country on a student visa, but the Immigration and Naturalization Service has no idea when he entered or where he was--until September 11. That day, according to federal investigators, Alghamdi helped hijack the jet that slammed into the south tower of the World Trade Center.

Before September 11, enforcing U.S. immigration laws largely meant two things: trying to keep foreigners from turning into illegal U.S. residents, and investigating domestic crimes involving foreigners. Keeping track of foreigners' whereabouts and legal activities in this country was not considered anyone's job. But now that foreign terrorists have killed more than 5,000 people on U.S. soil, lawmakers have begun demanding that the federal government collect information about what foreigners are up to while in this country-or, at least, whether they've overstayed their welcome.

"Without an adequate tracking system, our country becomes a sieve," declared Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif, chairwoman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Technology, Terrorism, and Government Information, at a hearing this month to examine ways of keeping tabs on foreigners inside the United States.

Proposals gaining the most traction on Capitol Hill include creating an automated system to track who is entering and who is leaving the country; encoding fingerprints or other unique "biometric" identifiers onto visas; checking whether foreigners with student visas are actually enrolled in school; and integrating federal agencies' lists of suspected terrorists.

But since the government does not even know how many U.S. residents are U.S. citizens, keeping track of noncitizens in any meaningful way would be extraordinarily difficult and expensive. And many immigration specialists contend that although routinely tracking foreigners might aid in determining--after the fact--who was involved in a terrorist attack, such efforts would do little to help prevention efforts.

A few numbers offer a sense of the enormity of the problem. U.S. borders are crossed some 500 million times per year. More than 31 million nonimmigrant foreigners legally enter this country every year, through 300 checkpoints. And some 3 million to 4 million visitors a year remain here illegally after their visas expire.

It's difficult to imagine how to accurately keep track of foreigners within the United States, short of strapping house-arrest-style ankle bracelets on every visitor who enters the country legally. But even such an intrusive method would fail to monitor the many foreigners--including, apparently, six of the 19 hijackers on September 11--who enter illegally. And, besides, how could any agency productively sift through data on the activities and whereabouts of 31 million people?

Perhaps predictably, proposals to track foreigners have given new life to decades-old calls for a national identification card--so that foreigners could not easily claim to be U.S. citizens. Feinstein recently endorsed the idea of a national ID card. But Demetrios G. Papademetriou, co-director of the Migration Policy Institute, insists that ID checks don't work except in controlled spaces, such as airports, and he says that laws requiring employers to check workers' citizenship have never been enforceable--or effective in keeping illegal residents from getting jobs.

Papademetriou worries that lawmakers are getting sidetracked by feel-good proposals that would do little to reduce the threat of terrorism: "I want to be protected more than anybody else. I have kids. I don't want them to go to war. But I want real protection. I'm not interested in things that are [just] going to make me feel good."

Papademetriou doubts any of the tracking proposals now under consideration could have prevented the September 11 attacks. If federal officials had been closely monitoring foreign students, they might have known something about what Alghamdi and the other hijacker who had entered the country on a student visa were doing here. But even if their activities had aroused suspicions, it's not clear that the INS or the FBI could have located them before September 11.

Of the other 17 hijackers, nine had valid visas. Under one proposal now in Congress, the two nonstudent hijackers who had overstayed their visas would have been put on a list of visitors whose visas had expired. "Suppose that we had found out that they went `out of status.' How would we find out where they are? We couldn't," Papademetriou said. "And the remaining six, we have absolutely no record of, which probably means they sneaked into the country."

One of the broadest sets of tracking proposals was introduced last week by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, and Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, the panel's ranking Republican. They want to establish an automated entry and exit system at all airports, seaports, and land border checkpoints; develop a biometric identifier that would make immigration documents harder to falsify or misuse; track all foreign students through their U.S. schools; and require that the INS, State Department, and intelligence agencies share information about potential terrorists.

The Kennedy-Brownback plan would require airlines to submit their international passenger lists to the INS in advance, so that the names could be run through the agency's "lookout" system. Most airlines voluntarily submit such lists, but the exceptions are notable: the international carriers of Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. The INS already plans to coordinate its database with the State Department's name and photo database to improve identification checks at the borders.

One popular tracking measure would create an automated system to identify whose visas have expired. The 1996 immigration act directed the INS to establish an electronic entry and exit registry for seaports and airports. But the airlines complained it was too burdensome, so two years ago Congress gutted it, leaving only a pilot program involving the Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Charlotte, N.C., airports. That system sends information from boarding cards to an INS computer, which matches comings with goings and records passengers' names and nationalities, but it does not collect information about where visitors supposedly intend to stay in the United States.

On flights that are not part of that program, foreign passengers fill out a form that does ask where they will be staying. Passenger information is later typed into a computer, making it easy for names to be misspelled. If "Osama" accidentally becomes "Osamma," even the most rudimentary tracking effort is foiled.

INS Commissioner James Ziglar promises that an automated entry-exit system will be in all airports by 2003. Recalling congressional discussions over the 1996 immigration act, former INS General Counsel David A. Martin says: "A lot of members thought you could use this [tracking system] to go get people. It wasn't realistic."

It's unclear if it's more realistic now. The 2,000 INS officers assigned to the country's interior are charged with arresting noncitizens who commit crimes; identifying and prosecuting immigration fraud; and enforcing anti-smuggling laws-in addition to monitoring who has overstayed his or her welcome. "The overstay is given a very low priority," former INS General Counsel Paul Virtue said. "The person may have said they're staying at the Washington Marriott Hotel. If they move somewhere else, there's no system for tracking changes to a person's whereabouts."

Requiring hotels to verify the legal status of every foreign guest would be unworkable because of the huge numbers involved, say even such supporters of strong, new restrictions as Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. Besides, a registration requirement for foreign visitors would be useless without a national ID card, he adds.

The Kennedy-Brownback package would create visas containing a unique biometric identifier that could be scanned into a database and read by machine. Virtue said biometric visas might improve the accuracy of the information that border agents collect but wouldn't do much to track where foreigners go once they are in the country. In addition, they would not help in identifying the 16 million visitors a year from the 29 countries whose citizens are not required to have visas to enter the United States.

Concerned about the ease with which terrorists on student visas blend into American society, the House-Senate conference on the anti-terrorism bill inserted a requirement that schools report on whether foreign students are actually enrolled. The nation's 570,000 foreign students tend to stay for years and sometimes have access to dangerous technical information.

The 1996 immigration law required universities to report quarterly on whether their foreign students were enrolled full-time and what their majors were. But universities balked at the cost of the reporting requirement, so it now applies to only 21 schools. "If the Congress wants to have this as a national security measure and wants to have the most expensive system that can be devised by the mind of man, then the federal government should pay for it," said Victor Johnson, the public policy director at the Association for International Educators.

Martin, now a professor at the University of Virginia Law School, said the potential usefulness of tracking foreign students is limited. "A good, committed terrorist whose cover is being a student is not going to let his student load dip below the minimum level. And because there are so many students, just getting the long list of people who violated their student status isn't a very efficient way to try to find the terrorists among us," he added.

The 3 million foreigners in the country on business or work-related visas are potentially trackable, according to Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies. That still leaves more than 25 million legal foreign visitors, mostly tourists. To aid in tracking them, Krikorian says that all foreigners should be fingerprinted at the border. And he'd like all states to require proof of legal status before issuing a driver's license. At least 15 of the September 11 hijackers, including Alghamdi, allegedly obtained driver's licenses and/or identification cards in Florida or Virginia.

Krikorian also suggested that U.S. banks verify the legal status of people who open accounts. A terrorist could avoid detection "by not applying for a job and carrying around bags of money," he said. "But as you make it increasingly difficult, you have a smaller chance that someone is going to do it."