9/11 Commission Urges Immigration and Border Reform
The 9/11 Commission has called for a range of immigration and border reforms to strengthen the nation's anti-terrorism efforts. In a final report issued July 22, the bipartisan commission of public officials outlined a three-pronged strategy to prevent terrorism: 1) attacking terrorists and their organizations; 2) preventing the continued growth of "Islamic terrorism," and 3) protecting against and preparing for terrorist attacks. To achieve these goals, the report makes a number of specific recommendations for border and immigration policy reform. In its global strategy for the prevention of terrorist attacks, the report calls for the United States border security system to be merged into an integrated screening network that encompasses the transportation system and access to vital facilities like nuclear plants. It also appeals for the standardization of a comprehensive screening system at external borders, airports, and other security checkpoints.
To achieve these recommendations, the commission advocates the national standardization of two identification documents, birth certificates and driver's licenses. It also encourages increased government cooperation with international allies and private corporations, and improvements to the automated collection of entry and departure data for foreign visitors. To better coordinate and facilitate joint work among the 15 national intelligence agencies, the report also proposes a National Counterterrorism Center and Cabinet-level national intelligence director. While the report supports the concept of the new electronic screening program for visitors entering and exiting the United States, US-VISIT, it recommends that the program should be expanded to require all people, American or otherwise, to carry biometric passports. Currently, individuals from the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean are exempt from US-VISIT requirements. (See the May, June, and October 2003, and January, April, and June 2004 Policy Beats for more information on US-VISIT).
Former governor Thomas Kean and former congressman Lee Hamilton headed the commission, which was appointed by the Bush administration under the formal name of The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. Some critics cautioned that the commission's report could lead to the creation of a national identity card or other internal controls that might restrict civil liberties. Despite such criticisms, both 2004 presidential candidates support the recommendations: President George W. Bush convened a task force meeting on July 26 to discuss which proposals might be quickly implemented by Executive Order, while Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry proposed to convene an Emergency Security Summit to implement the recommendations if elected.
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry on June 30 announced his platform on immigration reform. In a speech to the National Council of La Raza's national conference, Kerry said that within 100 days of taking office, he would propose a four-part plan that would give "good people who are undocumented but living here, working here, paying taxes, [and] staying out of trouble . . . a path to equal citizenship." In addition, he said that immigrants would be required to take civics and English classes. Kerry also promised to sign two bills currently pending in Congress: the AgJobs agricultural worker program, and the DREAM Act, which would allow young, out-of-status immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates while attending college. Both bills create a path for immigrants to eventually receive legal resident status.
In an interview with the Spanish-language network Telemundo on June 29, Kerry took stances on other immigration-related issues. He stated that granting driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants violated the spirit of the law, and that immigration authorities had the right to perform raids to capture unauthorized immigrants who had broken other laws. Some analysts believe that Kerry's comments regarding driver's licenses could hurt his standing with Latino voters in the election. Nevertheless, the Washington Post reported on July 22 that Kerry currently has a 2 to 1 advantage over his opponent, President George W. Bush, among registered Latino voters.
Around 15,000 Hmong refugees are expected to arrive in the United States this year. The first members of the group have already reached the U.S., and up to 3,000 more are expected by the end of August, with the remainder arriving by the end of 2004. The new arrivals fled their native country because of persecution they suffered due to their alliance with the U.S. during the Vietnam War. One third of the refugees will be resettled to Minnesota, a third will be sent to California, and the rest will be distributed among more than a dozen other states. Many of the refugees have been living illegally in a makeshift camp in Thailand, having passed up the opportunity for resettlement to the United States in the 1980s and 1990s as they clung to the hope of returning to Laos. Because the Thai military plans to close the camp by the end of 2004, most residents plan to accept the resettlement opportunity offered by the U.S. Department of State.
The refugees will receive initial assistance from U.S. resettlement agencies, which will help meet basic needs such as housing, school, language, employment, and health services. To fund these services, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on June 24 announced an additional $3.3 million allocation for Hmong resettlement costs. After one year of living in the U.S., refugees can apply to adjust their status to permanent residency and acquire a "green card." They eventually become eligible for citizenship. In addition, unlike other immigrants, refugees are not barred from receiving welfare benefits in their first seven years of residence in the United States. The next group of Hmong refugees, approximately 2,000 individuals, is expected to arrive by the end of August.
The United States and Mexico on June 29 signed a pact enabling Mexican workers in the U.S. and American workers in Mexico to transfer social security benefits across national borders. The pact is similar to international Social Security agreements the U.S. has with Britain and Canada, and allows workers to contribute to only one benefits system at a time. According to estimates by U.S. Social Security officials, only 7,500 U.S. citizens working in Mexico will qualify for retirement benefits, as compared to 41,000 Mexican employees likely to qualify for Social Security in the United States. Even so, the plan will have an initially limited effect because it excludes, unless or until they are legalized, an estimated six to eight million undocumented Mexican workers currently employed in the United States. While the pact will not become law without legislative approval, the United States Congress and the Mexican Senate are expected to pass the measure; U.S. lawmakers have routinely approved similar agreements with 20 other nations. (For more information on International Agreements of the Social Security Administration, see this January 2004 Migration Policy Institute Immigration Fact Sheet)
The Department of State on July 16 stopped accepting applications for mail renewals of visas. Under the new policy, announced on June 23, foreigners who work in the United States must return to U.S. embassies abroad to be interviewed and fingerprinted for visa renewal. The policy, which does not apply to foreign diplomats or employees of international organizations, is part of the U.S. effort to improve border controls after the September 11, 2001 attacks. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher stated that the switch was made to overseas processing because of the better capacity of U.S. embassies abroad to interview and fingerprint visa applicants. More than 50,000 people from more than 60 countries were processed in 2003.