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Before contemplating what will go into America’s immigration policy after Sept. 11, it’s worth appreciating the significance of what won’t go into it. We won’t rely on judgments, like those of a California state senate committee in 1876, that “the Chinese are inferior to any race God ever made”; they “have no souls to save, and if they have, they are not worth saving.” We won’t rely on studied opinions, like that of New York City Police Commissioner Thomas Bingham in 1908, that “85 percent of New York criminals were of exotic origin and half of them were Jewish.” And we won’t rely on careful observations by prestigious academics, like early 20th century sociologist Edward Ross, who wrote that Italians “possess a distressing frequency of low foreheads, open mouths, weak chins, poor features, skewed faces, small or knobby crania and backless heads.” No Chinese Exclusion Act, like the one Congress passed in 1882, will result from fear of Asian hordes. And no race-based quota system, like the one America first instituted in 1921, will rely on eugenic theories. So we’ve made some progress. We can all celebrate almost 40 years of a generous immigration policy that doesn’t read like a verse from Mel Brooks’ “Springtime for Hitler.” And yet — even absent the malicious intent of our predecessors — Americans may be on the verge of reinstituting an immigration system that is neither open nor race-blind. The fact is that all of the Sept. 11 terrorists were foreign nationals staying in the United States. We’ve already made it easier to detain foreigners now here. The inexorable logic of making Americans feel safer seems to demand that we also make it harder for foreigners to come here. Maybe much harder for everyone. Or maybe somewhat harder for most and impossible for some (read: Muslims and Arabs). Either way, our current system — which is generally open and not racist — is at risk. A SENSIBLE START Let’s stipulate that there’s no plan to slam the doors shut, and no one is playing on racial caricatures. James Ziglar, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, demonstrated this last month when he said, “What happened on Sept. 11 is not about immigrants; it’s about evil.” That’s exactly the right tone to take. And suggestions Ziglar made to the Senate for change at the INS seem — and are undoubtedly meant to be — moderate and measured. But they might not play out that way. Look at two examples of the changes Ziglar wants to impose: better tracking of departures of foreigners, and increased patrols on the Canadian border. Currently, mechanisms for tracking when and how people leave the country are virtually nonexistent. If people leave by plane, sometimes the airlines pass that information on to the government; sometimes they don’t. If people leave over land, there’s no record at all. Ziglar proposes remedying this by developing a system by 2005 that can track everyone’s comings and goings. With Canada, there’s a particular concern. In 1999, an Algerian national, Ahmed Ressam, tried to enter Washington state from Canada to blow up an airport in Los Angeles. To stop that sort of threat, Ziglar wants to beef up the patrol along our northern border. Seems hard to argue with that. Our Canadian border is 5,525 miles long. On Sept. 10, we had 300 agents patrolling it, compared with the 8,000 agents along our shorter border with Mexico. No one expects these measures to make us fully secure. Even if we track when each of the 30 million non-immigrants who come here each year are supposed to leave — and somehow rigorously enforce those deadlines — terrorists can strike before their time runs out. Similarly, we can use more and more guards to search more and more people, but some terrorists — or people who later become terrorists — will still sneak through. What about intelligence and technology, then? SEVIS and NAILS, TECS II and CLASS, the IDENT, the BCC, and the dreaded IBIS — won’t all these acronymic systems, complete with the laser and biometric add-ons that Ziglar mentioned, make us safe? Nope. “There is no quick fix, technological or otherwise, to the problems we face,” he told the Senate. Others also have their eyes open. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, told the Judiciary Committee, “Change in the way we conduct our immigration business will not, by itself, prevent terrorist attacks from occurring.” So we know these fixes won’t fix the terrorist threat. And still we’ll want to keep the bad guys out. It won’t be a surprise, then, when American eyes linger on our borders, and we think how to tighten them further — to keep out new classes of newcomers. RATCHETING UP THE RISK There’s already a growing sentiment to do just that. The State Department has indefinitely suspended admission of about 20,000 refugees stranded abroad who, before Sept. 11, had been cleared to come here. If we’re to vet every entrant to the country, keep track of where he is, where he goes, and when he leaves — not to mention scanning and checking all the fingerprints, names, numbers, and photos that security now requires — we’ll need to spend a lot more time, effort, and money. The INS conducts 500 million inspections at border crossings each year. Performing in-depth security for that many people is, to put it mildly, difficult. Which prompted another Senate witness — Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies — to advise that “the best way to give the INS the breathing room it needs to put its house in order and to address homeland security concerns is to reduce its workload by reducing temporary and permanent immigration.” And Camarota isn’t alone. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., — not your typical isolationist — suggested soon after Sept. 11 that the United States cease granting student visas for six months. She later retracted her proposal, offering instead that “I do have a concern that in the last 10 years, more than 16,000 students came from such terrorist-supporting states as Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, and Syria.” A bill she introduced Nov. 1 would make it virtually impossible for students from those countries to study here. But why would we ban students merely from those nations? The Sept. 11 terrorists came from Saudi Arabia and Egypt. To follow through with Feinstein’s logic, why not prohibit people from there, too? And why just students? Why not tourists? Business people? All Arabs? All Muslims? All immigrants? The problem with this thinking isn’t that it does not make sense. The problem is that, to a worried public, it does. And by starting the process of finding “the appropriate balance” between immigration and security, as Sen. Hatch defined the goal, we risk letting the bull out of the gate. Initial changes will indeed be moderate. But they won’t give us a sufficient sense of security. So harsher measures will be proposed. And since security will still be our key concern, they’ll pass, too. And when the next terrorist attack — or near miss — occurs, the process will start again. Immigration won’t stop completely, and the INS might survive. But the open principles of our current system will not. WE LOSE Two dangers come from this. First, others will be harmed when we abandon our role as a haven from world oppression. When stingier immigration principles prevailed back in 1939 (to offer just one horrific example), America refused to accept 20,000 children fleeing from Nazi Germany. Second, we harm ourselves. When we get nativist, we get scared. Witness the Red-baiting paranoia — a fear of foreigners, really — that gripped the nation in the early 1950s, after three decades of stunted immigration. More importantly, since Congress approved our current open immigration policies in 1965, the benefits we’ve received as a country can’t be overestimated. We’ve added to our ranks tens of millions of Mexicans, Jamaicans, Salvadorans, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indians, Georgians, Russians, Moroccans, Ghanaians, Nigerians, and others — all people who probably couldn’t have come in before. Certainly the new Americans helped the economy — so much so that Germany, at least before Sept. 11, was considering emulating our system to revive its flagging financial fortunes. But new Americans have done more for the nation than that. As a country of immigrants, we have something of a sacred obligation to pass the opportunity given to us or our grandparents along to the next generation of newcomers. By coming, they let us reaffirm ourselves. Without them, we can’t. The question now is how to protect that. “Increasing security while maintaining robust immigration” is a nice line. But the debate is already starting to conclude that the principles of open immigration are not compatible with our safety. To keep that conclusion from becoming final, we’ll need more than nice phrases to secure ourselves and our immigrant heritage. Evan P. Schultz is associate opinion editor at Legal Times . He can be reached at [email protected]

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