Monday, March 21, 2005

Our Terrorist-Friendly Borders

The New York Times
March 21, 2005

Our Terrorist-Friendly Borders

After the Sept. 11 attacks, it was shocking to learn how easily the hijackers entered the country. What is shocking today is how little progress has been made in securing our borders. Terrorists may well be entering the country by crossing from Mexico or Canada. But it is just as likely that they are coming in the way the Sept. 11 hijackers did: at airports, slipping through the Swiss-cheese security system now in place.

Until this year, immigration officials routinely handed phony travel documents back to people caught trying to enter illegally, and even now visitors are not always required to show the simplest of evidence that they are truly here on a visit: a return ticket. The government still does not have a workable system for monitoring whether visa holders actually leave when their visas run out.

At Senate hearings last week, it was clear that the sense of urgency the nation felt after Sept. 11 has faltered. Only 2 of the 27 "visa-waiver countries," whose citizens can enter the United States without visas, are expected to meet the Oct. 26 deadline for having new machine-readable passports - which was extended from Oct. 1, 2003. And U.S.-Visit, a much-heralded new system for tracking arrivals and departures, has been rolling out at a glacial pace.

One of the most important tasks Michael Chertoff, the new secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and Congress jointly face is pulling in the welcome mat for would-be terrorists. If Mr. Chertoff does not have the resources or legal authority he needs to make the borders safe, he should say so publicly, and often. Among the areas that need to be attended to are these:

1. More Resources at the Borders - A growing number of non-Mexicans are crossing over the Mexican border. And suspected terrorists have long been entering the country from Canada. More guards need to be put in place, and there should be more use of fences and ground sensors to detect movement.

2. Better Means of Tracking People Who Overstay Their Visas - One of the biggest sources of illegal immigration is people who enter the country legally but decide not to leave. The Department of Homeland Security must push to complete work on the U.S.-Visit system so that the government can identify people whose visas have expired.

3. Better Information for Front-Line Immigration Officials - Stolen and lost passports are a major terrorist tool, and not enough is being done to detect them. There needs to be a greater international effort to centralize data about lost and stolen passports, and the data needs to be made available on computers so front-line immigration officials can consult it before admitting a visitor.

4. Shorter Lengths of Stay for Visa Holders - Most of the Sept. 11 hijackers were admitted as tourists and given automatic six-month stays, far longer than the typical vacation. Lengths of stay should be more precisely tailored to the needs of individual visitors - tourism, study or visiting relatives. This may require more resources, but it is worth it to ensure that terrorists are not guaranteed a half-year to prepare an attack.

5. Tougher State ID Requirements - The Sept. 11 hijackers obtained 13 driver's licenses. The rules need to be re-evaluated, so non-citizens cannot get such high-quality identification. This is a complicated issue. Congress needs to find an answer that would not violate civil liberties as some national ID programs would, and also gives undocumented residents access to some kind of driver's license for safety and insurance reasons.

Getting terrorists into the United States is a vital step in most of the worst terrorist scenarios. We now know that Al Qaeda has travel facilitators, who are experts at exploiting the weak points in our border security. The federal government needs to act quickly and forcefully to make their jobs harder, and the nation safer.