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LYONS: The national security component of immigration reform

The ‘Gang of Eight’ bill does little to protect the border

- - Wednesday, August 14, 2013

In the various efforts to reform the U.S. immigration system, often overlooked in the debate is its impact on national security. The recent communications intercept of al Qaeda's intent to conduct a terrorist attack or series of attacks against U.S. facilities in the Middle East and North Africa should also remind us of the likelihood of terrorist cells on American soil.

It is an acknowledged fact that since we have refused to secure our borders, we have facilitated the transit and infiltration of al Qaeda affiliated terrorists and narco-terrorists who are now living illegally in the United States. This is a serious national security issue, as manifested by the Boston Marathon bombing.

It should be equally disturbing that the Obama administration has cavalierly designated aliens — whether legal or illegal — as "customers." According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Alejandro Mayorkas, these "customers" are to be "fast-tracked" to "get to yes" on their applications. What this means is that the director has instructed his staff that their job in processing applications is to "get to yes," no matter the issue. With such a directive, national security issues are obviously ignored or bypassed.

Under current rules, the legal immigration procedures are as follows:

Applications submitted with verified proof of identity.

In-person interviews must be conducted, usually by a representative of the State Department.

Applicants must submit fingerprints, which are then checked by the FBI.

Trained adjudicators run background checks through the Treasury Enforcement Communications System, which includes immigration, criminal and intelligence databases.

If derogatory information is found based on the background check, then the case is referred to Immigration and Custom Enforcement so applicants can be further investigated, located and, if warranted, placed into removal proceedings.

While the current procedures are not perfect, they are effective under normal processing procedures. However, when U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services receives a sudden large volume of applications, as with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (President Obama's version of the Dream Act), the following occurs:

No proof of identity is required.

No in-person interviews are conducted.

Background checks are superficial. "Hits" are not checked to determine if an arrest resulted in conviction.

Information about applicants who are denied Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival status may not be turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for removal processing.

Safeguards in the current application process are not only violated, but ignored under this accelerated process with an obvious adverse impact on national security. Will the Senate's immigration-reform bill fix these problems, as well as President Obama's version of the Dream Act? The short answer: Unlikely.

There are a number of major problems with the "Gang of Eight" immigration-reform bill, many of which adversely affect national security. They promise the bill will end illegal immigration with tough, new enforcement procedures. If it were only so. One of the basic problems is that the border-security enforcement "triggers" are weak and interior enforcement is basically excluded. It is a boon for illegal aliens — legal status and work permits are given before any enforcement procedures are implemented.

The border-security "triggers" only require the Department of Homeland Security to demonstrate that plans for developing border security have "started" before illegals are then given legal status. Worse, after 10 years, legal permanent residence can be given without enhanced border-security implementation. Regardless of the many enforcement provisions in the bill, the bill leaves it up to the administration to decide what provisions to enforce. An administration official will have the authority to issue waivers for almost every enforcement provision.

The Senate bill calls for the completion of an electronic biographic entry-exit system for use at all seaports and airports, but it excludes 106 land-border entry points where most crossings occur. Current law requires biometric at all entry points.

In short, the "Gang of Eight" bill codifies a dangerous process by granting the Department of Homeland Security wide discretion in determining which documents are acceptable as proof of eligibility and identity, exempting amnesty applicants from in-person interviews, and not specifying how complete background checks should be. It also prohibits application information from being turned over to a law enforcement or intelligence agency unless the agency specifically requests it as part of an ongoing investigation.

A terrorist or drug cartel member who has not been fingerprinted would be able to apply for amnesty under a false identity. He would be issued official ID and travel documents under that name.

The Senate bill essentially turns the United States into an enforcement-free zone for three years. During that time, no illegal alien can be put into removal proceedings without an opportunity to apply for amnesty, unless convicted of a felony or three separate misdemeanors.

The threat posed by Hezbollah and al Qaeda terrorist cells in South and Central America cannot be dismissed by an administration's decree. Fixing our porous borders is one of combating the threat of terrorism that America faces. Any immigration bill must have enforceable border-security measures as a key national security element in protecting our country.

Retired Adm. James A. Lyons was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.