Admitting Terror

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

To understand how Atta and his conspiratorial compatriots were repeatedly admitted into the U.S. by INS inspectors, a person must know how the process works at America's airports. When foreign visitors arrive, they are directed, passports and visas in hand, to a designated immigration room, where they await processing. The inspectors sit at booths and essentially guard what is officially termed a "constructed border" -- a yellow stripe in the carpet typically called "the thin yellow line." Before a visitor can cross, he or she must be approved by the inspector, who examines the visitor's travel documents, runs his or her name through the INS lookout computer, and interviews the traveler about his or her intentions in the United States. Touron and others say that each inspection should, at minimum, last an average of two minutes. All parts of the process take time -- a thorough examination of a passport "tells a story," as Touron puts it, and can take more than a minute. The documents include a traveler's birthplace, parents' names, citizenship, country of origin, and where he or she has traveled before. All of this information, of course, could help pinpoint potential terrorists.

Interviews are also critical in the process. Since all the terrorists who entered the United States were lying about their intentions, all could have been turned away: Sharp, unhurried inspectors would only have had to find inconsistencies in their respective stories to deport them. Under the law, such wide discretion falls to INS officers.

In Atta's case, for example, an inspector might have asked his destination, whom he knew in America, how much money he had, and how long he intended to stay. Had he or any of the other hijackers stumbled or given a conflicting story, the inspectors could have used their discretion under the law to refuse entry.

The problem, say inspectors, is that they don't get the time necessary to do their jobs. INS standards allow them only about 60 seconds per passenger on a good day. And when they try to turn away questionable travelers, their supervisors often overrule them. "It happens all the time," Touron says. "[The visitors] lie; they have problems with their passport. And a supervisor looks at them and says, “They look okay to me.' Stamp."

In addition to pressure from higher-ups, inspectors must also deal with airline representatives, who routinely demand that inspectors work faster. "They are interfering with police business and the security of the United States, and that is against the law," Touron complains. "But our supervisors always side with the airlines."

The airlines have every right to push for speed, lobbyist Michael Wascom insists. "Yes, the airlines have complained vociferously about the INS on Capitol Hill," he says. "They are so poorly managed -- and I want to make it clear I'm not saying it's the inspectors' fault. They have good people on those lines. But when they are slow, it's an inconvenience for passengers and crew members. It causes people to miss flights and for baggage to be misplaced. We are in the business of moving people, not to enforce the law. We have an expectation that the service will be performed efficiently and in a timely manner."

In response to this powerful lobby, Congress has passed laws demanding time limits and applied pressure on the highest levels of INS. "The airlines put extraordinary pressure to get their people in fast," Pizarro says. "People complain to the airlines, and the airlines complain to Congress, and Congress goes to INS. That's where the complaint gets channeled."

One of the resulting laws, which was put into effect during the last decade, mandates that the INS complete processing each U.S. visitor within 45 minutes of his or her leaving the plane. "Supervisors would stand over your shoulder with a watch in their hand, saying you needed to hurry up," former INS supervisor Bayda explains. "So we only had time to deal with people who were so obvious anybody could catch them. The sophisticated criminals, the counterfeiters, the smugglers, the terrorists -- [supervisors] didn't even want to know who they were. I think the World Trade Center attack is a direct result of the INS emphasis on facilitation."

Touron puts it this way: "INS is working for the airlines. We are working for corporate interests instead of national security. And this is upsetting to the entire rank and file."

Pizarro says the immigration service is run on fear -- of lawmakers, airlines, the media, and visitors. "Everybody is so scared of everything that law enforcement is forgotten about," Pizarro declares. "And it all turns into a contest to see who can let the most people in the country in an hour."

Enforcement measures have deteriorated across the board, the inspectors claim. In 1996, for instance, Congress mandated that the INS begin monitoring departures to determine how many aliens were illegally overstaying their visits and also to help catch criminals and terrorists. The INS and the airlines fought the measure, which was later repealed.

The disturbing problem of overstays, however, remains. A 1997 report by the Justice Department'sinspector general's office described the problem of visitors remaining in the country after their visas expire as "disturbing and persistent." Nearly half of the country's illegal aliens (then an estimated five million) likely were overstays, according to the report.

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