Visas and Homeland Security

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, the newly appointed director of the White House Office of Homeland Security, faces a daunting challenge in the coming months and years.

In his new position, he will be expected to coordinate and streamline domestic security measures and to develop long-term strategies to secure our borders. It's a tall order.

There has been debate over whether Ridge should be a member of the Cabinet, and whether he should have budgetary control over agencies involved in homeland defense, like the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. As the Washington Post pointed out last week, however, Ridge's authority won't depend so much on those questions as it will on whether he retains the energetic support of his good friend, President Bush.

One of the key issues Ridge must address immediately is how best to protect America's borders. This is an issue I know something about because of my work at our overseas embassies, where foreigners solicit visas to enter the U.S. legally for a variety of reasons. In my opinion, Ridge's new office should take a very close look at the non-immigrant visa process in the interests of national security and homeland defense.

There are several categories of non-immigrant visas including business, student and tourist visas. In our embassies, young State Department consular officers - many of them junior officer trainees (JOTs) - make decisions on whether to grant such visas. The work is boring and repetitive and the workload is staggering at our larger embassies, like those in Manila and Mexico City, where consular officers have 60 seconds or less in which to decide whether to issue a visa. While business visas are the least controversial category, tourist visas are more problematical because too many of those "tourists" remain in the U.S. after their visas expire, and a few of them are potential terrorists.

Student visas are a major problem. Last year, for example, a man named Hani Hanjour used a student visa to enter the U.S. to study English at the ELS Language Center in Oakland, Calif., where the basic admission requirement is the ability to pay the $1,325 fee. But Hanjour didn't show up when classes began last November; instead, he was taking flying lessons in San Diego and Maryland. Hanjour is believed to have been the pilot of the American Airlines plane that crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11.

According to Time magazine, "Foreign students have become big business for American colleges. They not only help schools to achieve their diversity targets, but they almost always pay full tuition. In California alone last year, 66,000 foreign students paid colleges nearly $700 million in tuition and fees."

So if a foreigner can obtain an I-20 admissions form from an American college, university or trade school, and can pay the tuition and fees, he or she is usually granted a student visa.

And once a "student" like the terrorist Hanjour is in the U.S., there's no way to track him even though Congress ordered creation of a computer database of foreign students in 1996 in order to follow their movements.

Colleges, not wishing to become agents of the federal government, lobbied successfully to delay implementation of the measure until 2003.

Time noted that there are some 500,000 people living in the U.S. with student visas, "which is widely considered the easiest way to get past INS controls." Even though the INS can turn away foreigners with valid visas, they rarely do so because of our relatively liberal immigration laws and lack of enforcement resources. Since so many colleges and trade schools depend on the revenue generated by foreign students and so many businesses depend on cheap foreign labor, Congress keeps the INS on a short leash so as not to "offend" foreign students or workers.

Just last week, INS officials confirmed that 16 out of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers arrived in the U.S. with legal visas and were admitted despite the fact that a couple of them were on FBI terrorist "watch lists." This cries out for coordination among the 40 or 50 federal agencies that have responsibilities for homeland security, and is the major challenge facing Gov. Ridge as he assumes his new duties.

Ridge told the Washington Post last week that he may have "to break a little china along the way," but anticipates general cooperation among federal agencies in order to protect our borders. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has asked for $32 million to expedite the electronic tracking system for foreign students and controls have been tightened up along our lengthy borders with Canada and Mexico.

Photo ID is now required along the Mexican border and Canada is taking a hard look at its ultra-liberal immigration policies, which serve as an open invitation to U.S.-bound terrorists like Ahmed Ressam, a 34-year-old Algerian who had been living in Montreal. He was arrested two years ago in Port Angeles, Wash., with 118 pounds of explosives and four timing devices in the trunk of his car. Authorities believe he planned to "celebrate" the millennium by blowing up Los Angeles International Airport.

We will all be safer if Gov. Ridge is able to effectively coordinate homeland defense among federal, state and local governments without infringing on our basic liberties in a free society.

"You don't defend liberty to forsake it," he told the Post. "We have to be wary; we have to be alert, but we cannot let the fear ... paralyze us. Then they (the terrorists) win, and they can't win." Judging from his initial press conference on the anthrax scare last Thursday, he's off to a good start. Let's wish him well as he tackles a Herculean task.

ANOTHER EXPLOSION: Following up on last Sunday's column, a state fire marshal acknowledged last Monday that Nevada is woefully short of hazardous materials inspectors. That same day, two workers were critically injured when 3,300 pounds of rocket fuel exploded at a Las Vegas storage facility. As I asked last Sunday, When will the state take definitive action to protect these vulnerable workers?

Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.


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