Commentary

Restrict Arab Visa Applications, Not Mexican Immigrants

By Daniel Griswold
This article appeared on Cato.org on October 11, 2002.

In the year since the terrorist attacks of September 11, long-time opponents of immigration have tried to exploit legitimate concerns about border security by tarring millions of peaceful, hardworking immigrants with the stain of terrorism. The incessant message from the Federation for American Immigration Reform, the Center for Immigration Studies, certain columnists at National Review, and Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), head of the House Immigration Reform Caucus, has been to blame the straw man of “open borders” for allowing terrorists into the country. Their only solution is a drastic cut in the number of immigrants allowed into the United States.

Opponents of immigration demand the wrong solution for the wrong problem. The most likely profile of a terrorist is not an immigrant entering from Mexico, but a non-immigrant entering from a small group of Muslim-majority countries. Like a laser-guided smart bomb, we should aim our border-control efforts at the most likely sources and channels through which terrorists would enter our country.

Immigrants — foreigners who come to the United States to settle permanently — are only a small subset of the tens of millions of foreigners who cross our borders every year. In fiscal year 2000, 33.7 million foreigners entered the United States, only about 1 million of them to immigrate. More than 95 percent arrived as temporary visitors for business and pleasure, the rest as students, government officials, temporary workers, or their family members. Almost all left the country within a few weeks or months of arriving.

None of the 19 Sept. 11 terrorists came as immigrants. None of them applied to the INS for permanent residency. None entered via the Mexican border. Like most aliens who enter the United States, they were here on temporary tourist and student visas. Even if we cut immigration to zero, that would not stop terrorists from slipping into the country on non-immigrant visas.

Before Sept. 11, immigration opponents said precious little about the threat of terrorism. Virtually all their proposals were aimed at stopping economic immigration, especially from Mexico. Cutting non-immigrant tourist and student visas for visitors from Arab countries was not on their agenda. In fact, it’s hard to find a single proposal made by the restrictionists prior to Sept. 11 that would have prevented or even seriously impeded the Sept. 11 plot.

Congress so far has refused to be swayed by the “immigrants equal terrorists” argument. The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002 that Congress passed almost unanimously in May represents the right kind of policy response to terrorism. The new law focuses on identifying terrorist suspects abroad and keeping them out of the country. Notably absent from the bill were any provisions rolling back levels of legal immigration or cracking down on undocumented migration from Mexico.

Most members of Congress understand that willing workers from Mexico are not a threat to America’s national security. Of the 48 foreign-born terrorists known to have plotted attacks dating back to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, all were Muslim males and all but three were from Arab countries. More than half came from Saudi Arabia or Egypt. Others came from Sudan, the Palestinian territories, Algeria, Lebanon, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates.

The new border security law takes the modest step of restricting visas for aliens from any country designated a “state sponsor” of terrorism. Section 306 stipulates, “No nonimmigrant visa … shall be issued to any alien from a country that is a state sponsor of international terrorism unless the Secretary of State determines, in consultation with the Attorney General and the heads of other appropriate United States agencies, that such alien does not pose a threat to the safety or national security of the United States.” But the list includes only seven states: Libya, Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, North Korea and Cuba.

Visas should be restricted not only for countries where the state actively sponsors terrorism, but also for those where terrorists are most likely to originate — and that means the Arab Middle East and other Muslim countries where terrorists are known to operate. In November 2001, the State Department began to delay the issuance of visas to males age 16 to 45 from Muslim-majority countries in order to scrutinize their applications more closely, but U.S. policy should be to stop, not just delay, those visas until we can be sure that any individual entering from those countries is not a security threat. The scope of the new border security law should be extended to a wider circle of countries.

Of course, most visitors and immigrants from Arab countries have no intention of committing terrorist attacks against the United States. But we also know that almost all the terrorists who have entered the United States were from that small group of countries. Here is a case where profiling is both rational and justified. It is absurd not to subject visa applicants from Arab countries to a higher level of scrutiny than we apply to a grandmother on holiday from Denmark.

If a more restrictive visa policy had been applied to Arab countries in 2000 or earlier, the Sept. 11 attacks would not have unfolded as they did, and probably would have been thwarted altogether. In an ideal world of perfect knowledge, we could treat all visa applicants strictly as individuals. But with imperfect knowledge and limited resources, we need to play the odds, and the odds are that future terrorists, like those of Sept. 11, will be adult males originating from a relatively small group of Muslim-majority countries. Restricting visas and immigration from that part of the world offers the best hope of keeping terrorists out without sacrificing the benefits of an economy open to peaceful trade and immigration.

Daniel Griswold is director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute and author of Mad about Trade: Why Main Street America Should Embrace Globalization (Cato Institute, 2009).