Admitting Terror

The immigration service's own describe how America failed to protect its borders from the September 11 terrorists

INS officials, meanwhile, are quiet on the issue. The agency's spokespeople said none would agree to be interviewed for this article. Aponte didn't return phone messages for comment. INS Washington spokeswoman Kimberly Weissman declined to comment on specific New Times findings but offered a general observation. "It's difficult," she says. "You must be sensitive to the delicate balance of enforcement with the interests of commerce and trade, facilitating travelers, and tourism. You are trying to deal with both sides."

It took the calamitous suicide bombings in New York City and Washington to shift the balance back in favor of enforcement. "Obviously," says Weissman, "since September 11 the emphasis has been put on security by everyone concerned."

There's nothing wrong with a little courtesy, but union leaders like King say the INS has sacrificed national security in its bid to be nice
Gregory Matthews
There's nothing wrong with a little courtesy, but union leaders like King say the INS has sacrificed national security in its bid to be nice
For years inspector José Touron has criticized the immigration service's lax and unlawful practices. INS brass has ignored him
Steve Satterwhite
For years inspector José Touron has criticized the immigration service's lax and unlawful practices. INS brass has ignored him


Read "Admitting Terror, Part 2", Part 3, and other related New Times stories

The responsibility for fighting terrorism is far from a new concept at the INS. As Walter Cadman, the INS counterterrorism coordinator, told a U.S. Senate judiciary committee in 1998: "INS is invaluable to the government's efforts against international terrorism and foreign terrorists who attempt to cross our borders."

The first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 only intensified those efforts, Cadman told the committee. Even prior to that attack, the INS issued each inspector a classified document called "The Red Book," a little paperback with tips and instructions on how to find counterfeit passports and visas often used by terrorists. The first page of the 1992 "Red Book," which was obtained by New Times from a confidential source, is headed: "The Threat is Real!"

"Since the early 1970s, numerous terrorist organizations have provided their operatives with a wide variety of spurious documents," the introduction to the book begins. "After showing their spurious passports and papers at border control, these terrorist operatives have proceeded to hijack airplanes, plant bombs, and carry out assassinations. These terrorists acts, however, can be stopped.... Terrorism is a plague that threatens all of us. It must be stopped. Use the RED BOOK!"

But inspectors complain that, despite the bold letters and exclamation points, their best efforts to stop terrorists and other illegal aliens are stymied by INS management. They contend that supervisors force them to rubber-stamp visitors at a dizzying pace. The work, as inspectors describe it, is stifling and uninspiring. Law enforcement is an afterthought, they say, and the only saving grace is a paycheck. The turnover rate is high, leaving the inspector corps chronically understaffed and harried. The majority of INS employees, says union leader King, are silent about these problems, fearful that speaking out would only lead to retaliation from higher-ups that could cost them their reputations and jobs.

Two inspectors who have broken the wall of silence are José Touron, a 50-year-old INS veteran, and Patrick Pizarro, who at age 28 has already become bitterly disillusioned with the service. Through them a sketch can be drawn of the dire problems at the INS.

On the morning of September 11, Pizarro was doing the same thing as most everyone else in America: watching events unfold on his television screen with what he describes as "horror and rage." He wasn't just angered by the suicidal perpetrators and the incredible scale of the damage they inflicted; he was also livid with the INS, where he'd been working for nearly four years. It was a general kind of anger; he didn't know then that several of the hijackers had entered the country through MIA, where he manned a booth and inspected visitors. "I just sat there and thought how the INS was responsible for letting those people in this country," Pizarro says, "how they just let everyone slip through."

Pizarro refused to go to work September 11 for his 1:00 p.m. shift. Instead he stayed home and wrote about his feelings, letting the anger and disappointment pour out. Three days later he sent an e-mail to INS port director Walter H. Lee and numerous other INS supervisors and inspectors. In it he blasted the agency and its terrible failures. The document is a powerful testament to the demoralization of INS troops and bodes poorly for the country's frontline in the new war.

"... I'm not by myself, believe me, when I say that I just feel like a body with a stamp, charged with making sure the passengers make it in and out as quick as possible," he wrote in the two-page dictum. "A stamp monkey. Everyone feels that way.... [D]isillusionment remains rampant. We let people in every day that we know we shouldn't.... I don't feel like a federal officer. I don't.

"Leadership doesn't make you feel like a stamp monkey, leadership makes you feel you can make a difference. Leadership doesn't make you feel that you need to stamp in as many people as possible in one hour, leadership makes you feel that you protect our country's borders by monitoring who we let in.

"I never want to work to just collect a paycheck, I want a career," he writes. "And I want to believe in what I do.... Because on a day like Tuesday [September 11], when the world turned upside down, I didn't [believe in what I do].

"My prayers and hopes are with you. This job will now be more important to this country than it's ever been before."

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