Post-Sept. 11 Security Fears, Policies Seize Spotlight
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on April 13 announced new rules intended to prevent individuals who may have violated immigration laws from being imprisoned indefinitely, without charge, while their case is examined. Senior DHS officials will now be required to review each case before approving long-term detentions as DHS attempts to formalize a system of checks and balances for lengthy immigration-related detentions. These rules follow a highly critical report released by the Inspector General's office in June 2003 that documented significant physical abuse and mistreatment of people detained in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Civil rights groups welcomed the announcement, but noted that the rules do not specifically address the treatment of detainees, nor the conditions at immigration holding facilities. It remains unclear whether similar rules will be promulgated by the Department of Justice.
Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge in late March asked Congress to extend by two years the October 2004 deadline for countries to issue biometric passports to their nationals if they wish to enter the United States. Citing privacy concerns, challenges in readying the necessary technology, and operational problems, Powell and Ridge said that none of the 27 countries whose nationals are not required to present visas to enter the U.S. would be able to meet the deadline. The approaching deadline would have posed significant problems for the government, as U.S. embassies overseas likely would see a 70 percent increase in non-immigrant visa applications if the deadline were not extended.
At the same time, Secretary Ridge announced that as of September 30, nationals from all visa-waiver countries would be subject to the US-VISIT program. Excluding visitors from Mexico and Canada, the 27 visa-waiver countries, which include nations in Western Europe as well as Australia and Japan, account for an estimated 13 million visitors to the U.S. each year.
Examining the legality of the Bush administration's sweeping antiterrorism policies, the Supreme Court in April heard four important terrorism-related cases. On April 20, the Court reviewed the cases of Rasul v. Bush (03-0334) and Al Odah v. U.S. (03-0343), both of which question the U.S. government's right to detain individuals in almost complete secrecy at an overseas military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Currently there are over 600 men from approximately 40 countries imprisoned at Guantanamo. The oral arguments examined the specific issue of whether the U.S. courts have jurisdiction over the "detention of foreign nationals captured abroad" and whether or not the naval base, which is leased from the Cuban government, is truly sovereign U.S. territory. If the Court decides the naval base technically is part of Cuba, the United States will lose its power to oversee foreign prisoners who are held there. A ruling in the Guantanamo detainees' cases is expected by early July.
On April 28, the Court heard two more terrorism-related cases— Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (03-6696) and Rumsfeld v. Padilla (03-1027), both of which involve the rights of U.S. citizens during wartime. Under the decree of President George W. Bush, Yaser Hamdi and Jose Padilla have been designated "enemy combatants." They have been held virtually incommunicado, without charge. Hamdi was captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan in 2001 and Padilla was arrested at O'Hare International Airport in May 2002. Civil liberties advocates claim that the government is violating the constitutional rights of American citizens, while the government claims national security would be harmed if the military's interrogations of Hamdi and Padilla were interrupted by visits from lawyers. At issue is whether or not the government has the right to interrogate American captives without allowing them access to a lawyer or the courts because of the fear that the captives may be terrorists. A decision is also expected in July.
The government commission examining the events of September 11, 2001 has concluded that immigration measures designed after the terrorist attacks to keep the country safe from further assaults have provided little to no information leading to the identification or apprehension of terrorists. In fact, one program has already been suspended and may have had negative effects, including alienating certain ethnic communities and discouraging travel to the United States. The statement followed on the heels of commission hearings with former Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, and Department of Justice officials to examine the performance of law enforcement agencies and the intelligence community prior to September 11. Based on received testimony, the commission will also evaluate post-September 11 reforms in these areas. The commission's final report, which is expected in July, will include an expanded version of the statement's findings.