Committee on International Relations
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515-0128
Statement of William D. West
Retired Supervisory Special Agent, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service
February 13, 2004
Before the House Committee on International Relations
Subcommittee on International Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Human Rights
I would like to thank the Chairman, the Committee members and the staff for the privilege and opportunity to provide testimony at this hearing today.
Border security and especially preventing the entry of foreign terrorists into the United States are clearly issues critical to our national security. Unfortunately, our border security is more illusion than reality. America’s border defenses are penetrated thousands of times a day by unsophisticated, unskilled and uneducated foreign laborers. It would be foolish to assume foreign terrorists, with access to sophisticated support networks, substantial illicit funds, smuggling organizations and routes and a myriad of false identity documents would find it difficult to enter the United States. In fact, such terrorists find our borders to be barely an inconvenience.
Border intercepts of terrorists are rare exceptions and not the rule. Cases identifying such suspects generally result from multi-agency counter-terrorism investigative efforts conducted within the interior of the U.S. well after these suspects have entered. The case of Mahmoud Youssef Kourani, an alleged Lebanese Hezbollah operative indicted in Detroit last year for terrorism support charges, who was found to have been smuggled across the U.S. Mexican border, is a recent example.
Occasionally, however, the efforts of our border enforcement personnel pay off. The capture of Millennium Bomber Ahmed Ressam on the Northwest border with Canada and the interception of suspected 9/11 20th hijacker Mohamed al-Qahtani by an INS Inspector in Orlando in August 2001 are two such examples. Again, these are rare events. The sheer volume of human inspectional traffic, on the order of hundreds of millions per year through legitimate ports of entry, belies any ability to conduct a thorough security screening. The average immigration inspection, before the implementation of the US VISIT program, took about forty seconds, and officials have boasted that US VISIT has only added fifteen seconds to the process. That itself is telling about where the priorities really are. Pre-9/11, the Federal inspectional system was focused more on moving commerce, human and cargo, than on securing the borders. Among the management ranks of INS Inspectors in the field, the general attitude was, “Crank ‘em in.” While there have been efforts to change that mindset since 9/11, moving the inspectional line at a quick pace is still a high priority.
US VISIT is a long overdue step in the right direction. Combining biometrics with border security efforts is a must. Assuming the technology actually works, and given the history of U.S. Immigration authorities and technological innovation - that is a concern; but if it works, the system could eventually prove to be a powerful national security tool. The system has already identified and captured several fugitive criminals; however, it was primarily designed to control nonimmigrant alien entrants. For that to happen, the departure control portion of the system must be made to fully work. Once departure control is fully implemented, another universe of issues arises. It is generally recognized that close to half of the illegal alien population in the U.S. entered through ports of entry on temporary visas and simply overstayed their time. Given that, eventually US VISIT would presumably identify very large numbers of non-departure violators. What will happen with that information? Will there be any intelligence triage? Will there be any enforcement action against those violators; and if so, by whom? Will the violator leads be placed in any law enforcement lookout systems? Or, will nothing be done and US VISIT simply becomes another border security White Elephant?
Another issue plaguing border and immigration enforcers is the issue of databases. The inefficiencies and inaccuracies of the computer systems of the former INS were notorious well before the 9/11 tragedies. Recent 9/11 Commission hearings have brought to light how, far from originally reported, the 9/11 terrorists did not enter the U.S. on “clean” and “legal” visas, but several had in fact lied on their visa applications, making readily identifiable false statements. Others committed immigration law violations that should have been noticed and acted upon but were not. Much of this goes to the inability of the immigration and visa record systems to interface with each other. Within INS, its own databases were stand-alone systems that were not interconnected, that in spite of many years and hundreds of millions of dollars allocated by Congress to upgrade INS computer systems. Unfortunately, the Department of Homeland Security and its immigration-related agencies have inherited this legacy. This must be quickly fixed, and biometrics must be fully added to the visa and immigration benefit application process, as had been clearly recommended in Congressional testimony in 1997.
Finally, since 9/11, it is absolutely clear that immigration matters are directly linked to issues relative to international terrorism. Incredibly, before 9/11, the most senior INS officials failed to recognize that fact, and very few immigration enforcement resources were devoted to national security cases. The issue of politicizing immigration law enforcement continues even while we are in a war on terror. Combined with the institutional and structural problems within the immigration systems, some of which still exist, we are hamstringing the very national security processes meant to protect us. One clear example of caving into political correctness at the expense of security is the virtual abandonment of the utilization of classified evidence in Title-II immigration removal proceedings, as authorized under 8 C.F.R. 240.49, and bringing no cases under Title-V Alien Terrorist Removal Court proceedings. These proceedings, lawfully passed by Congress and on the books, are being ignored because special interest groups and certain media have mischaracterized what they are and how they could be employed, yet they could be powerful and narrowly focused enforcement tools brought to bear against foreign terror suspects.
In a time when America faces uncounted shadow enemies who are willing to die to kill us, and who have the means to slip past our borders with ease, those responsible for securing the borders and finding those threats who make it in, must have every legal weapon available to defend us, but those weapons also need to work properly.