Will Immigration Reform Help the U.S. Fight Terrorism?

At the height of their desperation over the sniper attacks in Washington, D.C., federal authorities offered undocumented immigrants a chance at a visa if they came forward with information to help solve the shootings.

As it turned out, 17-year-old John Lee Malvo, one of two suspected in the 13 shootings, was a Jamaican who was in the country illegally and was once detained by authorities and released.

The sniper case has added fuel to the debate over changing the country's immigration laws. Those who favor an amnesty for undocumented immigrants say it would help law enforcement by bringing the undocumented "out of the shadows" so they can assist crime and terror investigations. Critics of the approach seek tighter controls on immigration and say an amnesty would only result in a larger population of foreign-born, whom they say serve as cover for criminals and terrorists.

The Sept. 11 attacks sank well-advanced talks for an amnesty benefiting undocumented Mexicans, and dealt a strong hand to groups that support restrictions on immigration into the United States.


"It was a godsend to them," says Wayne Cornelius, head of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California at San Diego. "Before 9/11, most of the anti-immigrant groups were in full retreat. Now, after 9/11, they've been resuscitated." Meanwhile, those who pushed for legal status for some undocumented "quickly lost the courage of their convictions."

But earlier this month, Dick Gephardt, House minority leader, introduced a bill that would grant undocumented immigrants from any country, and their close relatives abroad, a chance at legal status. Gephardt says the amnesty would aid the anti-terror war by bringing the hard-working undocumented "out of the shadows" so authorities can focus on catching real terrorists.

Stephen E. Flynn, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the time is right for an amnesty. "We're about to stir the hornet's nest in Iraq. We're in an especially dangerous time, and if you can get a chunk of the undocumented population processed, it's an advantage to identify who those folks are."

Under Gephardt's proposal, undocumented immigrants would undergo background checks and would need to prove they lived continuously in the United States for at least five years and worked for at least two.

Politics is partly driving the Democrats' efforts. Gephardt needed to resurrect the legislation -- which only has a chance of passing in a Democratic-controlled Congress -- to rally increasingly crucial Latino voters in key races in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas to help tilt control of the House and Senate away from the Republicans.

For critics, arguments that amnesty will help the terror war are "window-dressing." Amnesty will provide an incentive for illegal immigration, allow for widespread fraud and plunge the already overburdened Immigration and Naturalization Service into chaos, says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., which seeks stricter immigration controls.

Krikorian says that foreign-born communities incubate terror. "Immigrant communities provide the cover for bad guys from overseas. We've seen that in Lackawanna, N.Y., we've seen that in Detroit and we've seen that in Frankfurt," says Krikorian, referring to cities where alleged terror cells were uncovered and to activities in Germany of Sept. 11 hijackers. Krikorian's Web site also features articles detailing Malvo's illegal entry into the country as a stowaway on a cargo ship that docked in South Florida.

A 2001 study by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development revealed that migration to service, agricultural and construction industries in Europe, Australia and North America helps poor economies by reducing unemployment and increasing incomes through the remittances migrants send back home. In a current article for the Canadian magazine New Internationalist, author-activist Teresa Hayter writes that looser immigration controls would help alleviate the poverty that creates terrorists, rebels and hard-line regimes in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

As the flow of money and goods between countries increases, restrictions on the movement of labor are rising along with security fears after Sept. 11.

Still, others argue that linking immigration policy to the terror war, whether through tighter or looser controls, is a red herring. Terrorists will always seek to enter countries under the guise of economic migration, they say. Since only extremists argue for a complete end to immigration, and deportation of all undocumented is unrealistic, proven intelligence-gathering tactics remain the best terror-fighting tools.

It is more useful to view an amnesty for the country's estimated 8 million undocumented in terms of public safety, says Anamaria Loya, executive director of San Francisco's La Raza Centro Legal. Undocumented immigrants will be more likely to report crime and cooperate with police if they receive legal status. Most of Loya's clients are among California's more than 2.3 million undocumented residents, by far the largest such population in the country.

"To have an underclass, a second-class category of people," she says, "adds to crime, adds to poverty, and it's an unhealthy way for a society to operate."

PNS contributor Marcelo Ballve (ballve@hotmail.com) is a former Associated Press reporter in Brazil and the Caribbean.

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