- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 18, 2014

Fear of the Islamic State has already engulfed the U.S. border security debate, but America’s front door — the legal immigration system — may also offer a path for militants to gain a foothold in the U.S. to carry out attacks, the head of the labor union for officers who handle legal immigration applications said Thursday.

From “loopholes” in the asylum system to failing to go after immigrants who overstay their visas, Kenneth Palinkas, president of the National Citizenship and Immigration Services Council, said the government has left security vulnerabilities that can be exploited by the Islamic State, which goes by the acronyms ISIS or ISIL.

“In addition to the extremely real and serious threat that ISIS has already or will soon slip across our porous southern border, it is also essential to warn the public about the threat that ISIS will exploit our loose and lax visa policies to gain entry to the United States,” Mr. Palinkas said.

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As Congress debates how to curtail the ascendance of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a number of Republicans on Capitol Hill say the U.S. is vulnerable along its southern border. They point to social media posts that suggested militants exploit the border.

The administration says it has shot down those posts, saying they were from “a very small number of sympathizers with ISIL,” but that there’s been no credible intelligence suggesting the insurgents themselves are looking to cross the southwestern border.

“We see nothing to indicate that there is any sort of operational effort or plot to infiltrate or move operatives from ISIL into the United States through the southern border,” said Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

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Mr. Palinkas‘ warning suggests that insurgents could have an easier time trying to come through the regular screening process for legal entry. He said the government “cannot effectively track these foreign visitors and immigrants,” and authorities don’t do a very good job of trying to punish those who defraud the system.

“Applications for entry are rubber-stamped, the result of grading agents by speed rather than discretion,” he said. “We’ve become the visa clearinghouse for the world.”

Members of Congress have asked the administration to take steps to suspend countries from the Visa Waiver Program, which allows citizens from key allies to bypass some immigration checks if those countries have high numbers of their residents traveling to join the fight in Syria.

Pressure is also building on Capitol Hill for Secretary of State John F. Kerry to revoke the passports of Americans who have traveled to Syria to join the fight.

Mr. Kerry, while acknowledging he has that power, said Thursday he is taking a go-slow approach, wary of disrupting any criminal investigations into those people’s activities while in Syria.

“What I want to make certain is anybody who has a passport and returns, returns in handcuffs, not through customs with a passport,” Mr. Kerry said.

Intelligence officials have estimated more than 100 Americans have traveled to Syria to join the fight — though it’s not clear how many of those are siding with the Islamic State militants that are deemed to be a danger to U.S. interests.

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