The attack on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center was only the second time since British soldiers marched on the capital in the War of 1812 that United States citizens have been attacked by foreigners from within our borders. The only other occasion was the first bombing of the trade center eight years ago.
All of the men who hijacked U.S. planes on September 11 were non-U.S. citizens. These terrorists entered the United States with ostensibly legal visas. Yet none of them should have been allowed to come here.
Mohamed Atta, the suspected ringleader of the attacks, was allowed back into the country through the Miami airport on January 10 of this year, even though his tourist visa reportedly had previously expired. In fact, Atta traveled freely to and from the United States during the past two years; other hijackers also traveled with ease throughout the country.
One hijacker, Hani Hanjour, was on a student visa that had expired as of September 11. Others overstayed visitor visas; at least one terrorist reported resided for a time in Arizona.
In testimony before my Senate subcommittee on terrorism, U.S. officials have told us that they possess little information about foreigners who come into this country, how many there are, and even whether they leave when required by their visas.
For these reasons, the Bush administration’s emphasis on reforming our immigration system is very welcome. Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, and I have introduced legislation that will implement many of the President’s goals and take further steps to close loopholes in our immigration system.
Our bipartisan legislation would create a new centralized database that would better coordinate information between border control and other federal enforcement agencies, such as the FBI.
We also propose creating a new fraud-proof “Smart Visa” card for foreign nationals, using new technology that would include a person’s fingerprints or other forms of “biometric” identification. These cards would be used by visitors upon exit and entry in the U.S. and would alert authorities immediately if a visa had expired or a red flag is raised by a federal agency. We would strengthen all federal identification documents such as pilots’ licenses, visas, immigration work authorization cards, and others by requiring that they be fraud - and tamper - resistant, and, if applicable, include the visa’s expiration date.
The 29 nations that participate in the government’s visa waiver program would also be required to develop tamper-resistant, machine-readable passports that conform to the new U.S. standards.
Foreign nationals entering the U.S. would experience new screening procedures as well. All airlines, cruise lines, and cross-border bus lines would have to submit lists of passengers to the new database prior to departure. This simple step would give law enforcement advance notice of foreigners coming into the country.
President Bush also expressed concerns that I share about the U.S. foreign student visa program, which has allowed numerous foreigners to enter the country without ever attending classes and with lax oversight by the federal government. The system is rife with abuse, with numerous examples of fraud and bribery by persons seeking student visas.
Just as alarming, in the past decade, more than 16,000 people have entered the U.S. on student visas from states included on the government’s list of terrorist sponsors. Notwithstanding that Syria is one of the countries on the list, the State Department recently issued visas to 14 Syrian nationals so they could attend flight school in Fort Worth, Texas.
Our legislation would prevent persons from obtaining student visas if they come from terrorist-supporting states such as Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya and Syria. Additionally, we would require the INS to conduct background checks before the State Department issues the visas. U.S. educational institutions would also be required to immediately notify the INS when a foreign student violates the term of the visa by failing to show up for class or leaving school early.
America is a nation that welcomes international visitors – and should remain so. But terrorists have taken advantage of our system and its openness. Now that we face new threats to our homeland, it is time we close some of the loopholes in our immigration system.