WASHINGTON – If you think the Immigration and Naturalization Service is finally cracking down on suspicious foreign nationals at U.S. airports, think again.
Immigration inspectors, the first line of defense against terrorists trying to enter the U.S., say recent reforms by the INS and State Department, which controls the U.S. visa program, don’t go nearly far enough.
According to INS documentation officers at major international airports across the country – from LAX to DFW to JFK – several potentially dangerous “gaps in the system,” particularly visas, have not been closed.
Inspectors, fearing reprisals from Washington, spoke with WorldNetDaily on the condition they not be named. They say Americans would be shocked to know that, even after the Sept. 11 attacks and recent terrorist threats:
- The INS counts on airline gate agents to keep accurate records of when foreign visitors leave the U.S.
- Inspectors do not conduct “outbound checks” of departing foreign visitors to see if they over-stayed their visas – a key enforcement tool for catching repeat offenders and barring them from the U.S.
- Airline ticket agents, who provide INS and other federal authorities vital data on booked passengers coming to America, key into the system the U.S. as the country code for permanent residents re-entering the U.S. – even though they may be citizens of Iran or other terrorist countries.
- A passenger born in Tehran – or Baghdad or Damascus or Tripoli or Karachi – can enter the U.S. with a Canadian passport and stay in the country as long as he wants, avoiding any INS or State screening, or even documentation.
- Passengers claiming to be U.S. citizens can get into the country with as little as a birth certificate issued by a hospital.
- Passengers who don’t have a passport can buy a so-called “affidavit of identity” from an airline to get into the country.
- Foreign students in the U.S. on F-1 visas can stay a year or more after college graduation to acquire on-the-job “practical training,” yet the INS does not monitor their employment.
- Foreign scholars, researchers and scientists can visit the U.S. on little-known J-1 visas sponsored by U.S. universities, where they can work in sensitive areas.
- Although Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, and now Syria are on the INS do-not-admit list, visitors from those terrorist countries continue to be admitted.
- The value of old machine-readable visas, which can be altered, will increase among terrorists as new, harder-to-forge visas are issued, yet the State Department has not recalled the old visas.
- Inspectors, pressured by headquarters to rapidly “clear” international flights, don’t leave their booths to see if the amount of checked baggage foreign visitors pick up after their flights corresponds with the amount of time they claim to be spending in the country.
- Inspectors are discouraged from arresting and deporting illegal aliens they find in airport concourses waiting for relatives to arrive from abroad.
- U.S. attorneys are reluctant to prosecute U.S. citizens or permanent residents caught by INS inspectors trying to smuggle foreign family members into the U.S.
- Inspectors have been pressured by members of Congress to go easy on detained foreign relatives of constituents.
Unreliable exit data: When foreign visitors arrive at international terminals, they go to a booth at the federal inspection area, where an INS inspector authorizes their admission to the U.S.
At that time, the official gives them a Form I-94, or Record of Arrival-Departure, which will note how long they are permitted to stay in the U.S. (the date of departure stamped on the form in most cases is marked with the notation “D/S,” for duration of stay).
When they leave the country, the airline gate agent collects the departure part of the I-94 slip, and gives it to the INS.
Relying on airline employees for such documentation makes many inspectors uneasy. Besides mistakes, they see a potential for abuse.
Employees may be bribed or threatened by terrorists to falsify information. Or they may be working with terrorists.
“There is a potential for inside jobs,” said one INS inspector.
No outbound checks: Three of the Sept. 11 hijackers over-stayed their one-year visas. Ringleader Mohamed Atta was allowed to re-enter the U.S., at Miami International Airport, despite over-staying his previous visa.
Immigration inspectors say conducting random checks at international gates would help stop future Attas. They could nab departing foreign visitors who have over-stayed their visas, document them and ban them from future entry.
“INS headquarters still has no real interest in enforcement. If they did, they’d have us doing outbound checks,” an inspector said. “They’d have us checking (recent foreign visitors) as they exit the U.S. to catch people with visa overstays.”
“A lot of people depart and come back again,” he added. “If we did outbound checks, we’d catch a lot of them.”
Misleading country codes: Airline employees, not federal authorities, supply vital personal data about people flying into the U.S. to authorities, who use the information to track terrorists. Passenger names, birth dates, passport numbers, country codes and other data are typed, or scanned, in by ticket-counter agents. The information goes into the advanced passenger information system, or APIS, used by INS and U.S. Customs.
Here’s the central problem: The country code for permanent residents is being keyed in as the U.S., regardless of their actual citizenship. The INS doesn’t do any analysis on arriving U.S. citizens, so these passengers aren’t checked out – even though they may really be citizens of Iran, Libya, Sudan, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan or Pakistan.
“The actual country code of these persons needs to be put into the APIS system correctly, and a notation should be made that the passenger is an LPR (legal permanent resident),” one INS inspector suggested.
“If we have screwed-up intelligence, there’s a good chance we’ll miss these people as they try to enter the U.S.,” he warned.
Second-country passports: Another loophole that immigration inspectors want Washington to close is the lack of documentation and controls for visitors born in the Middle East who use Canadian passports, a policy they call “dumb” and a “risk to U.S. security.”
With the sole exception of Canadians, every foreign national wanting to enter the U.S. has to fill out some kind of arrival-departure form. Even the British have to fill out paperwork.
And while British nationals don’t need a visa to visit, they are only permitted to stay for three months at a time. Canadians, on the other hand, can come to the U.S. non-controlled, or “N.C.,” as INS inspectors say. That means the INS does not put a time limit on their visits.
Here’s what’s scary: The INS continues to ignore the birthplace of visitors entering the U.S. with second-country passports. So when an Iraqi or Yemeni arrives to enter the U.S. with a Canadian passport, the INS doesn’t consider place of birth, and inspects him as if he had been born in, say, Vancouver.
That means he avoids being fingerprinted and photographed on his first U.S. entry, like all other Canadians. He also avoids U.S. consulate pre-screening, because Canadians can enter the U.S. without a visa. And of course, he avoids filling out any entry-exit forms, and can stay in the U.S. for virtually as long as he wants.
And if he boards the U.S. from Mexico or the Caribbean, he can even avoid using a Canadian passport. The INS requires as little as a Canadian ID and a Canadian wallet-sized birth certificate.
“If you’re someone bent on terrorizing the U.S., how would you enter? With your Pakistani or Syrian passport, and send up a red flag, or with your Canadian passport?” said one INS inspector. “You’d clean yourself of your terrorist-risk country passport. If you’re a terrorist, you’d go through Canada.”
Agreed another inspector: “These people are smart. They know our system and how to get around it.”
“The Department of State and INS realize that Iraqis, Iranians, Sudanese and the rest of the potential terrorists are entering the U.S. with Canadian passports, yet they continue to stick their heads in the sand and say, ‘That person is a Canadian and therefore that person does not get fingerprinted (or) photographed, (and) doesn’t have to fill out the I-94 entry-exit form, and doesn’t have to acquire a U.S. visa,’ ” he added. “And therefore we can’t stop him.”
Birth certificates: One of the biggest problems the INS has now, and has had for some time, is the fraudulent use of U.S. birth certificates by foreign visitors, inspectors say.
“If someone walked up to me with a birth certificate, I honest to God have no idea if that’s theirs or not,” said one airport inspector. “Most of the time we have to let them in.”
They are still considered proof, along with an ID card, of citizenship.
And they don’t have to be official, state-issued certificates, either.
“We have people coming in all the time with just a hospital certificate with footprints on it,” said another INS inspector.
Documentation inspectors have no third-party means of disproving claims by foreign travelers of U.S. citizenship.
“Weekends and nights, we can’t call any county clerk or recorder to try to verify the authenticity of a birth certificate,” complained one INS officer. “And when we do get through, sometimes they refuse to help. There’s no requirement that they help us.”
Some inspectors want read-only computer access to Social Security payroll databases to instantly verify work histories.
“The point would be to ask questions about work history that only the true person (named on the birth certificate presented to inspectors) could answer,” an inspector said.
Affidavits of identity: For $10, the airlines will sell passengers who don’t have a passport a notarized letter certifying that they are U.S. citizens. The Transportation Department, which regulates airlines, considers it as valid as a passport, and INS inspectors are told to let in passengers arriving on international flights with such letters.
While some carriers, such as American Airlines, say they are now shying away from the practice, many others, particularly ones that fly regularly to Mexico and the Caribbean, are still selling the affidavits.
Inspectors complain that the affidavit and return ticket can be passed to a terrorist in another country who has an ID card with the same name, and who can be boarded to return to the U.S.
“That is a risk to the public,” said one inspector.
“And how do we make a determination of citizenship and identity based upon a piece of paper issued by an airline and an ID card?” he asked. “We can’t do more than make an educated guess, and that isn’t good enough after Sept. 11.”
F-1 visas: Foreign national students attending American colleges on such visas can embark on a year or more of “practical training” here after they complete their formal studies.
Yet the State Department and INS place no restrictions on who they work for, and the INS doesn’t even monitor their work hours to check to see that they are actually employed.
What’s more, the INS doesn’t check how many hours of course work F-1 students are registered to take when they enter or re-enter the U.S.
Frustrated INS inspectors point out that some 40 percent of the illegal aliens now living in the U.S. entered the country legally on visas.
Keeping tabs on foreign visitors, particularly young ones most influenced by radicalism – knowing where they are, what they’re doing and how long they’ve been here – is key to controlling terrorism within U.S. borders, they say.
According to a Center for Immigration Studies review of the immigration status of all 48 foreign-born, radical Muslim terrorists who have been charged, convicted or admitted involvement in terrorism in the U.S. since 1993, a third of them were in the U.S. on temporary visas. Another quarter were illegal aliens.
All 19 hijackers, in addition, were here on visas.
J-1 visas: Many Arab scholars, researchers, scientists and doctors are brought into the U.S. by universities under special J-1 visas, which are often extended. INS officers say such foreign visitors are not restricted from working on sensitive projects such as bioengineering, or from partnering with government researchers.
Special-interest countries: Only in rare cases, such as refugees escaping persecution, are citizens from Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya and now Syria allowed into the U.S. Visa applications are subject to long reviews.
Yet a large group of Iranians, for example, recently was let into the country to attend, of all things, a martial-arts tournament in Texas.
(Of course, the 19 hijackers came from none of the five countries on INS’ do-not-admit list. Rather, they were all citizens of supposedly lower-risk Middle Eastern countries – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates.)
Old visas: State is digitizing photos in machine-readable visas, as well as in passports, to make them harder to alter. But in the meantime, the INS is still accepting the old visas.
“The Department of State needs to start calling the old visas in,” an INS inspector said. “They are not secure.”
Baggage checks: Foreign nationals often tell INS officers they’re only visiting or staying in the U.S. for a couple of weeks. But then they pick up their luggage and “have a ton of crap, like they’re moving here,” an inspector said.
Inspectors, who are under pressure to “clear” international flights within a 45-minute window, no matter how many passengers – 30 or 300 – don’t have time to leave their booths and count and inspect their luggage.
So they’d like to see foreign visitors go through baggage claim before coming through their stations. They say now that the Justice Department has ordered the photographing and fingerprinting of Arab visitors staying more than 30 days, checking bags is another way for inspectors to “keep them honest” – to make sure those who say they are staying fewer than 30 days, and thus avoiding the added documentation, aren’t in fact planning to stay longer.
Illegal relatives: When airport inspectors interview relatives of foreign visitors, they often find out that they are in the U.S. illegally. But they usually can’t arrest them.
“If family members are waiting for a foreign passenger in the concourse, we can go out and talk to them to try to shed some light on why this person is coming to the U.S.,” an INS inspector said. “But on a very, very rare occasion – when we find that that person, that family member, is illegally in the U.S., as well – will we be permitted to arrest them and deport them as well.”
Phone calls to INS headquarters seeking comment for this story were referred to the Justice Department, which did not return calls.
Smugglers: Inspectors complain that U.S. attorneys won’t prosecute U.S. citizens or permanent residents caught trying to smuggle family members into the U.S.
“They try to escort them into the U.S. on an international flight by telling us a B.S. story about them being a business associate, when we find out they’re really a family member intent on living here,” an INS inspector said. “But the U.S. attorneys aren’t interested in prosecuting them.”
Pressure from Congress: “We never get in trouble for admitting an alien, just if we are too aggressive detaining or deporting one,” said another airport inspector. “We’ve often picked up the phone and had a congressman on the other end asking us what’s going on.”