Border security bill won't stop terrorists, immigrant activists say

Tucson Citizen
May 8, 2002

A border security bill sent to President Bush today after it passed the House would do little to stop terrorists from entering the country but would cause further harm to migrants entering the country in search of work, local immigration activists contend.

The bill, which Bush is expected to sign, would provide more agents on the border and clamp down on foreigners who enter the United States on student visas but fail to enroll in college.

"We have known since the late 1970s that because our immigration laws are so restrictive, a lot of people who wish to come in for work do so with student visas or foreign visitor visas," said Isabel Garcia, co-chair of Derechos Humanos in Tucson. "That's the only way they have found to come in and find work. I think it's a huge mistake to focus in on that because of September 11th."

The House gave final congressional approval today on a 411-0 vote. The bill, which already had passed the House twice before, would require foreign visitors to carry tamper-proof passports and visas.

The House had been holding up the bill because the Democrat-controlled Senate wanted a provision to allow the Justice Department to ignore federal bidding requirements on a computer system to be used by government agents for screening visa applicants.

The chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., objected to the exemption. The Senate, early yesterday, authorized the House to take the language out to clear the way for House action.

U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, a sponsor of the legislation, said terrorist attacks sent a clear message that the government must do a better job of tracking foreign visitors.

"The September 11 attacks shed light on a failed U.S. border security system that allowed terrorists to slip through its many loopholes and avoid detection in the United States," Kyl said. "Our legislation, crafted with care by a bipartisan group of senators and passed by both chambers today, represents Congress' most comprehensive response to date to address that inexcusable failure."

The most alarming failure has been a visa-entry system that provided no tools to help federal agencies share information about potential terrorists, Kyl said.

The legislation Congress has passed today . . . will change all that," Kyl said.

One reality the legislation won't change is the number of illegal immigrants who die in remote desert areas, said the Rev. Robin Hoover, president of the group Humane Borders, which sets up water stations to prevent those deaths.

"Everything that I've seen so far doesn't address that at all," said Hoover, pastor at First Christian Church, "They could address that with one phone call to the Department of Interior, ordering them to put water out in the desert."

Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., the House Judiciary Committee chairman, said the changes are "important and long overdue."

The border security bill would boost the pay of Border Patrol agents and allow the Immigration & Naturalization Service to hire 200 new investigators and another 200 inspectors.

It also would require the INS to establish a foreign-student tracking system that records the acceptance of aliens by educational institutions, the issuance of student visas and the enrollment of aliens at schools. Several hijackers involved in the September attacks were in the country on student visas.

The legislation "addresses some gaping holes in the system, that even without the horrific tragedy of Sept. 11, it was our responsibility to address," said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas.

The bill would also require that passports issued after 2003 be tamper-resistant and that visitors carry documents that can be read by machine and identify the bearer with biometrics, such as face recognition or retinal scanning technology.

Garcia said the presence of 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States indicates that Congress should rethink immigration laws.

"If you've got that many people violating the law, you have to look at whether that law is sensible," she said.

Local officials with the Border Patrol and the INS declined to comment on the border security legislation.

Rob Daniels, spokesman for the Tucson sector of the Border Patrol, deferred comment on the legislation to the Washington, D.C. office.

Bill Johnston, Tucson's INS director, said his office doesn't comment on pending legislation.

The Associated Press contributed to this report