LET Despite distortions on visas,a lesson can be learned

By Bruce Larson

The recent distortions and histrionics of many politicians, as fueled by the media frenzy, concerning the supposed catastrophic blunder by the U.S.

Immigration and Naturalization Service in granting visas to two dead terrorists who took part in the Sept. 11 attack cry out for correction.

As an attorney and former law professor involved in the immigration law field for more than 25 years, please allow me to set the record straight and offer some thoughts on related implications.

First, the INS does not grant "visas" to anybody. A visa is a permit to enter the United States, which is issued only by a U.S. consulate abroad. (Consulates are part of the Department of State.) The INS becomes involved only when a foreign national presents the entry permit/visa in seeking admission to the United States at an airport or land border port-or-entry, whereupon the INS grants (or denies) the person a "stay permit" consistent with the type of visa presented and specifies how long the person may remain in the country.


Both terrorists in question came to the United States with valid entry permits/visas and had lawful stay permits. When they sought to enroll in flight school, they and the school properly filed applications to change their stay permits to student status and correspondingly extend their time of authorized stay.

Here is where the widespread media reports get their facts sensationally wrong. The INS did not grant the terrorists visas on March 11; rather, the INS approved the two separate applications for changed-stay permits last July and early August (several weeks before Sept. 11) and immediately mailed notice of the approvals to the future terrorists.

Where, then, does this supposed March 11 notice fiasco come from? Those notices were duplicate notices later mailed routinely to the flight school in question under standard operating procedures by the INS' outsourced private contract firm located in Kentucky.

In short, these facts clearly provide no basis for the demagogic criticism to which the INS has been subjected by so many in the media and government.

Why should this matter when nearly everyone quite properly agrees that the INS is in need of reform? Because when even our president virtually beats his chest in anger and righteous indignation during a press conference over something that is a lie, we risk losing sight of the real forest for the artificial trees.

Here are some real trees. The INS, FBI and State Department databases do not utilize shared-information electronic platforms. No background checks are performed when INS decides applications to change or extend stay permits; even if they were, according to the latest edition of Time magazine and others, neither of the two terrorists in question was in the FBI or CIA databases as a suspected terrorist or criminal. Moreover, the recently begun rudimentary name checks supposedly being performed by U.S. consulates on some foreign national visa applicants have but minimal utility and are of suspect reliability at best.

There's more, but the upshot is that the status quo is most disconcerting.

In my professional experience, I know of no school or employer that would not be delighted to have assurance that its foreign national students or employees have passed some official scrutiny of background checks and clearances. However, if even the government cannot effectively screen such persons, clearly individual employers and schools do not have the wherewithal to do so.


Few topics engender such strong emotions as immigration and national security, especially where the two intersect. Reasonable people certainly can differ on how we as a country should address these matters, but we must do so by distinguishing fact from fiction and keeping our emotions in check to the extent humanly possible.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, it obviously is tempting for our elected officials to "do something" merely for the sake of telling the constituents back home "look what I did about this horrible problem."

However, the issues are too important and the stakes too high for such typical antics. We, the voters, must not let them get away with it this time.

In a free society, we will never be entirely free from the possibility of terrorism inside our borders. Even though absolute security is an unattainable goal and no system will be perfect, a new system that reasonably balances the value of international exchange, economics, civil rights, workforce needs and security together with the realistic capabilities of both technology and humans is surely better than the flawed system we have today.

How we get there from here is to engage in a rational and thoughtful examination of the facts -- not by the political posturing and misinformation we recently have witnessed.

Larson is an attorney and immigration council director for the Mayo Foundation's International Personnel Office.

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