The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), with its 9,000 Border
Patrol agents, 4,500 inspectors, and 2,000 immigration special agents, had per-
haps the greatest potential to develop an expanded role in counterterrorism.
However, the INS was focused on the formidable challenges posed by illegal
entry over the southwest border, criminal aliens, and a growing backlog in the
applications for naturalizing immigrants.The White House, the Justice Department,
and above all the Congress reinforced these concerns. In addition, when
Doris Meissner became INS Commissioner in 1993, she found an agency seri-
ously hampered by outdated technology and insufficient human resources. Bor-
der Patrol agents were still using manual typewriters; inspectors at ports of entry
were using a paper watchlist; the asylum and other benefits systems did not
effectively deter fraudulent applicants.
Commissioner Meissner responded in 1993 to the World Trade Center
bombing by providing seed money to the State Department’s Consular Affairs
Bureau to automate its terrorist watchlist, used by consular officers and border
inspectors. The INS assigned an individual in a new “lookout” unit to work
with the State Department in watchlisting suspected terrorists and with the
intelligence community and the FBI in determining how to deal with them
when they appeared at ports of entry. By 1998, 97 suspected terrorists had been
denied admission at U.S. ports of entry because of the watchlist.
How to conduct deportation cases against aliens who were suspected terrorists
caused significant debate.The INS had immigration law expertise and
authority to bring the cases, but the FBI possessed the classified information
sometimes needed as evidence, and information-sharing conflicts resulted.
New laws in 1996 authorized the use of classified evidence in removal hear-
ings, but the INS removed only a handful of the aliens with links to terrorist
activity (none identified as associated with al Qaeda) using classified evidence.
Midlevel INS employees proposed comprehensive counterterrorism pro-
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posals to management in 1986, 1995, and 1997. No action was taken on them.
In 1997, a National Security Unit was set up to handle alerts, track potential
terrorist cases for possible immigration enforcement action, and work with the
rest of the Justice Department. It focused on the FBI’s priorities of Hezbollah
and Hamas, and began to examine how immigration laws could be brought to
bear on terrorism. For instance, it sought unsuccessfully to require that CIA
security checks be completed before naturalization applications were
Policy questions, such as whether resident alien status should be
revoked upon the person’s conviction of a terrorist crime, were not addressed.
Congress, with the support of the Clinton administration, doubled the num-
ber of Border Patrol agents required along the border with Mexico to one
agent every quarter mile by 1999. It rejected efforts to bring additional
resources to bear in the north.The border with Canada had one agent for every
13.25 miles. Despite examples of terrorists entering from Canada, awareness of
terrorist activity in Canada and its more lenient immigration laws, and an
inspector general’s report recommending that the Border Patrol develop a
northern border strategy, the only positive step was that the number of Border
Patrol agents was not cut any further.
Inspectors at the ports of entry were not asked to focus on terrorists. Inspec-
tors told us they were not even aware that when they checked the names of
incoming passengers against the automated watchlist, they were checking in
part for terrorists. In general, border inspectors also did not have the informa-
tion they needed to make fact-based determinations of admissibility.The INS
initiated but failed to bring to completion two efforts that would have pro-
vided inspectors with information relevant to counterterrorism—a proposed
system to track foreign student visa compliance and a program to establish a way
of tracking travelers’ entry to and exit from the United States.
In 1996, a new law enabled the INS to enter into agreements with state and
local law enforcement agencies through which the INS provided training and
the local agencies exercised immigration enforcement authority. Terrorist
watchlists were not available to them. Mayors in cities with large immigrant
populations sometimes imposed limits on city employee cooperation with fed-
eral immigration agents.A large population lives outside the legal framework.
Fraudulent documents could be easily obtained. Congress kept the number of
INS agents static in the face of the overwhelming problem.