At least 16 of the 19 hijackers entered the U.S. on temporary visas, as students, or workers or tourists. They vanished within our borders to plot and carry out their crimes. Some of them had their visas expire and became illegal aliens, but no one was looking for them. That is not unusual. Millions of foreigners have entered the county the same way. We don't know who they are, where they are, or what they are up to.
Last year 30 million people came to the United States on temporary visas, which are in effect permission slips to enter the U.S. for a specified purpose, and a specified period of time. They are issued by the State Department at U.S. embassies and consulates
The director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, Mark Krikorian, would like to make it harder to get such permission. He says the visa process typically involves a brief interview with the applicant, and a quick check to see if that person's name appears on a watch list of known criminals and suspected terrorists.
"Often, our consular officers overseas, the State Department personnel that make these decisions, have only a couple of minutes per applicant to decide whether someone should or should not get a visa, he says. That is not enough time, he says.
Last year, according to the State Department, at least 22,000 people came into the United States on temporary visas from Iran, 40,000 from Egypt, 52,000 from Saudi Arabia, and 79,000 from Pakistan - all countries where terrorists have come from in the past. No one knows how many left when they were supposed to, or whether they left at all.
When foreign nationals with visas getinto the United States, there are no more official questions, no one checks where they go or what they do. And because there are no immigration checkpoints upon departure, the government cant be sure they ever go home. Over the years millions haven't.
Until he retired in 1999, Tom Fischer was district director for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Atlanta, in charge of operations in four southern states and two major airports. He says nearly half of the 7 milllion illegal immigrants in the United States are people who came here on temporary visas and never left. There is no tracking system, he says, so the U.S. government doesnt know where they are.
One of these illegal immigrants seems to have been someone using the name Hani Hanjour, a licensed pilot with a post office box in Saudi Arabia for an address.
He received a student visa to study English at a Berlitz course offered t Holy Names College in Oakland, California. He became an illegal alien when he failed to show up for classes. But the school wasnt required to notify the INS. Ten months later he hijacked the jet that crashed into the Pentagon.
Fischer is sure that Hanjour was not the only terrorist in the U.S. on a temporary visa that had expired.
Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas says entering on a temporary visas has become the method of choice for terrorists trying to infiltrate the U.S.: "I think the word on the street in many countries of the world is, Just get across the border any way you can, even if it's buying an airline ticket. And once you're there, on a tourist visa for example, or even a student visa, you're there to stay if you want. No one's going to come looking for you, no one's going to care whether you've overstayed your visa or not.'"
Congressman Smith says the U.S. should have learned that lesson eight years ago, when fanatics blew up the World Trade Center the first time.
Mohammed Salameh, who rented the van used in the bombing, was supposed to be here for six months on a tourist visa, but he melted away into the large Arab community in Jersey City and stayed undetected for four-and-a-half years.
Eyad Ismoil had a student visa to attend Wichita State, then dropped out. He drove the explosives into the underground parking garage.
Lamar smith warned his fellow congressman that if something wasnt done, it was going to happen again. Smith thought he had fixed the problem in 1996 when Congress passed a new immigration bill that he had co-authored, which mandated the INS to set up a computerized entry-exit system to provide up to the minute information on aliens entering and leaving the country. It would have at least given the INS the names of people who had overstayed their visas and the countries they come from.
But a group of congressmen from border states dragged their feet, delaying implementation until 2001. Then last year according to Krikorian, Congress changed its mind altogether.
"Border town chambers of commerce objected," he says. "They didn't want traffic jams on the Canadian border. They were worried fewer people would come to their department stores. It was mainly a business concern."
The legislation also mandated that the INS gather up-to-date information from educational institutions about the half-million foreign students studying in the United States, five years later, that's not being done either. Smith blames a lack of desire.
Of the 80 people now being detained in connection with the Sep. 11 attacks, 33 of them are under arrest for immigration violations, most of them for overstaying their visas.
Krikorian says the terrorists took advantage of the system: "They might well have succeeded, even if our system was more coherent, and better run. There's no guarantee we can keep out bad guys. But we can ensure that large conspiracies like this can't enter the United States unnterrupted. In other words, if we had caught just two or three of these people - or were able to track them down, and the FBI was able to grab them beforehand, they would have had something to work with. They might have been able to get some information out of these people. But the entire group of conspirators was able to enter without interference, and that's just a serious failure of our immigration control system."
A computerized entry-exit system for immigration, and reliable reports on the current status of students would provide the government with valuable information about potential terrorists that it does not now have.
But knowing who is here illegally, and actually finding them, are two different things. And even airtight immigration controls in the U.S. won't compensate for poor intelligence abroad on the people we let into the country.
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