National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  April 25, 2003

Counterterrorism experts say new immigration controls not much help

Catholic News Service

Former FBI and CIA counterterrorism experts said April 3 that most of the immigration restrictions imposed since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have done little to improve national security and wouldn’t have kept any of the men implicated in those attacks from entering the United States.

The retired directors of the two security agencies’ counterterrorism programs told an audience of immigration lawyers and advocates that many of the government’s recent immigration-related laws and policies have been counterproductive.

Former FBI counterterrorism head Harry Brandon and former CIA counterterrorism director Vincent Cannistraro said new immigration restrictions and efforts such as the required registration of men from certain countries are causing whole communities of immigrants to mistrust the federal agencies.

“When we alienate the immigrant communities, we undercut our ability to work in those communities,” Cannistraro said at the National Legal Conference on Immigration and Refugee Policy. The conference, hosted by the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, known as CLINIC, and the Center for Migration Studies, brought about 200 people involved in immigration, many through church-based social service programs, to Washington for a two-day conference.

Directives given to immigration authorities and to the FBI often work at cross-purposes, said Cannistraro, now an analyst for ABC News who has also advised the Vatican on security.

“If any of these policies had been in effect before Sept. 11, they would not have stopped Sept. 11,” he said, explaining that nothing in the previous behavior of the men who hijacked and crashed four U.S. airliners would even today cause them to come to the attention of law enforcement authorities. At most, the backgrounds of a few of those men might lead to their names being tracked.

“But none of them would have been prevented from entering the country,” Cannistraro said.

In the meantime, he and Brandon said investigators who need to develop leads from within immigrant communities are being hampered by distrust of the government by immigrants. New policies such as registration requirements for men from certain countries, mandatory detention of many people in the legal immigration system while their cases are processed and the jailing of “material witnesses” without due process are making many immigrants reluctant to talk to anyone from the government, they said.

What might have helped prevent those attacks is if law enforcement agencies had better networks of contacts within immigrant communities, according to Cannistraro.

“We are using immigration enforcement as a proxy for law enforcement at a time when we need the help of those communities,” Cannistraro said.

A third panelist for the session, Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, said the “seismic shift” in immigration policy since the Sept. 11 attacks apparently is not going to be temporary.

“People are still scared,” Kelley said, “and the government seems intent on keeping us scared.”

With the exception of an uproar over the Immigration and Naturalization Service asking local police agencies to help enforce immigration laws, she said, there’s been “deafening silence” over the new restrictions.

“We have to demand policies that isolate terrorists but don’t isolate all other people,” Kelley said.

She suggested that as the INS is folded into the Department of Homeland Security immigration authorities may learn from the success of community policing programs, which strive to make people feel comfortable around the police.

“We need to engage, not demonize,” said Kelley.

For instance, she suggested that a program to legalize some of the estimated 6 million illegal immigrants in the United States would ease some of the fears within the immigrant community and give the government a better feel for who is in the country.

Brandon said previous legalization programs didn’t cause problems from a national security perspective. He said making immigration an important national priority entirely apart from current security issues would also be helpful.

“Immigration policy, if pushed to the forefront of national policies, is critical not only when a problem arises,” he said.

National Catholic Reporter, April 25, 2003

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