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60 Minutes: Lost In America

From the September 23rd edition of 60 Minutes.

One of the things we've learned in the last two weeks is that we don't know much about the people coming into this country. The terrorists who carried out the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon didn't wade across the Rio Grande or crawl through a Canadian cornfield. They didn't have to. The United States government opened its front door and let them in.

At least 16 of the 19 hijackers entered the U.S. on temporary visas, as students, or workers or tourists and 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. And that is not unusual. Millions of foreigners have entered the country the same way. And the sad fact is, 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 us for a specified purpose, and a specified period of time.

They are issued by the State Department at U.S. embassies and consulates, and chances are the terrorists waited in lines like this to get one.

STEVE KROFT: "How easy are they to get?"
MARK KRIKORIAN: "Apparently, not nearly hard enough."

Mark Krikorian, who would like to see stricter immigration laws, is director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. 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.

MARK KRIKORIAN: "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."

STEVE KROFT: "Does the State Department do any kind of background checks on people that are applying for visas?"

MARK KRIKORIAN: "They do background checks. But they don't nearly-- they don't have nearly enough time and enough people to do the kind of background checks-- especially for Middle Eastern visa applicants that they probably should be doing."

Last year, according to the state department, at least 22-thousand people came into the United States on temporary visas from Iran. 40,719 from Egypt 52,321 from Saudi Arabia. And 79,615 from Pakistan. All countries where terrorists have come from in the past. What we don't know is how many left when they were supposed to, or whether they left at all.

When foreign nationals, visas in hand, clear immigration in 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 u-s government can't be sure they ever go home' and over the years millions haven't.

Tom Fischer was district director for the INin Atlanta, in charge of operations in four southern states and two major airports until he retired in 1999. He says nearly half of the seven million illegal immigrants in the United States are people who came here on temporary visas and never left.

TOM FISCHER: "Happens every day."
STEVE KROFT: "And they're still here."
TOM FISCHER: "Still here."
STEVE KROFT: "Do we know who they are?"
TOM FISCHER: "No we don't because there is no tracking system."

We do know now that one of them 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 at holy named college in Oakland, California. He became an illegal alien when he failed to show up for classes. But the school wasn't required to notify the INS. Ten months later he hijacked the jet that crashed into the pentagon.

And Tom Fischer is sure that he was not the only terrorist who was in the United States on a temporary visa that had expired.

TOM FISCHER: "I suspect that close to half of those people, when this investigation is finalized, that we're gonna see half of those individuals at least were out of status in some form or fashion based upon their immigration violations."

STEVE KROFT: "Illegal aliens."
TOM FISCHER: "Illegal aliens."
STEVE KROFT: "That no one was looking for."
TOM FISCHER: "That no one was looking for."
LAMAR SMITH: "The situation today is, if you're in the country illegally, but haven't been convicted of a serious crime, no one is really out looking for you."

Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas says entering on temporary visas has become the method of choice for terrorists trying to infiltrate the United States.

STEVE KROFT: "Once you get in, you're home free?"

LAMAR SMITH: "Right. In the past, I think the word on the street in many countries of the world is, 'Just get across the border anyway 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.'"

Smith says the u.s. should have learned that less than eight years ago, when Muslim 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 wasn't done, it would happen again.

STEVE KROFT: "You raised this concern a nuber of years ago didn't you?"

LAMAR SMITH: "Yes I did raise this concern a number of years ago. There's not much satisfaction today in saying I told you so, to tell you the truth."

In fact, smith thought he had fixed the problem back in 1996 when congress passed a new immigration bill that he had co-authored.

It 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, which would have at least given the INS the names of people who had overstayed their visas and the countries they are from.

But a group of congressmen from border states dragged their feet, delaying implementation until 2001. Then last year according Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, congress changed its mind altogether.

MARK KRIKORIAN:"Congress gutted that provision. That would have computerized the-- the whole entry-exit tracking for foreigners, at airports and land ports everywhere."


MARK KRIKORIAN: "Because border town chambers of commerce objected. There was-- they didn't want traffic jams on the Canadian border. They were worried fewer people would come to their department stores. It was-- it was mainly a business concern."

STEVE KROFT: "Why is it not being done?"

LAMAR SMITH: "Well, the law really for the last several years, has not been enforced. And I think it's perhaps just been a lack of-- desire or interest, you'd have to ask the people who were in charge of enforcing the law, quite frankly."

So we did. And got a very bureaucratic answer

DORIS MEISNER: "Priorities get set, funding is allocated. As an administrator, you have to make choices."

From 1993 until last January, Doris Meisner was commissioner of the INS. She says the priority in Washington was not tracking illegal immigrants inside the united states, but stopping them from coming across the Mexican border.

STEVE KROFT: "So, we got a couple million people who came in the country legally and are now illegal aliens. And nobody knows really, where they are, and nobody's really looking for them."

DORIS MEISNER: "I think that's a fair statement. I mean, I-- you know, you have to understand that in the context of-- of what the priorities for who you look for would be, but absolutely."

STEVE KROFT: "You knew this problem existed?"

DORIS MEISNER: "Well, there's not-- there's not-- this has not been a secret problem."

STEVE KROFT: "When you were INS commissioner, did you worry about this problem at all? Was this something that you foresaw perhaps as coming back to haunt us, if we didn't do it?"
DORIS MEISNER: "Well, there were a lot of problems to worry about -- it'll be interesting to see what comes out of the debate now that the world has changed."

STEVE KROFT: "We've lost 5,000 people."

DORIS MEISNER: "Yes. This should be a piority, it better be."

TOM FISCHER: "Well, she was the Commissioner. She sets priorities. I guess it wasn't her priority."

STEVE KROFT: "You think she could have done more."


STEVE KROFT: "I mean, we're at war. Is there any way to get a handle on all these people that are out there? "

TOM FISCHER: "I don't think "Is there a way?" We have to get a handle."

Of the 80 people now being detained in connection with the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, thirty-three of them are under arrest for immigration violations, most of them for overstaying their visas.

STEVE KROFT: "So-- the terrorists took advantage of the system."

MARK KRIKORIAN: "Yes, they did. 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 uninterrupted. 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."

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.

© MMI, CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved

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