It has now been three years since the September 11 terrorist attacks. For us, as leaders of a Jewish agency that has served refugees and immigrants for 123 years, these have been very trying times. Clearly, we recognize the enormity of the attacks on that horrible day, as well as the ongoing danger to the United States from terrorists dedicated to killing Americans. But we also have seen firsthand the upheaval these events have wreaked on the whole American immigration process. For instance, during the last three years, 210,000 refugees were slotted to be granted admission to America, but a lack of coordination of security procedures has meant that only a little more than half that number actually made it to these shores.
The post-9/11 world poses unprecedented challenges for our nation’s immigration policies and practices. On the one hand, immigration enforcement in this new world must be effective enough to prevent terrorists or criminals from abroad from obtaining admission to America and threatening our citizenry.
On the other hand, our country was founded as a safe haven for those unwelcome in the lands of their birth or unable to realize their full potential in freedom. To abandon or retreat from this heritage out of fear would be to surrender to terrorism.
The question then is whether we can craft immigration policies that fulfill these two seemingly incompatible imperatives. Can we find a balance that will keep us safe from terror while still welcoming immigrants, refugees and visitors to our shores? We believe we can.
Central to creating effective enforcement policy is a commitment not to shy away from security ideas simply because they may cause emotional discomfort. To secure the United States, we may need to undertake programs that are more intrusive to personal privacy, involve longer periods of detention prior to hearings and force visitors to wait longer while their visa applications are screened. While we may wish these actions were not necessary, the reality is that today’s world is full of dangerous threats, and so some compromises will have to be made.
However, both for security and values reasons, we cannot endorse a view that any and all security programs proposed are automatically acceptable. Proportionality of response requires that the government and people of the United States act to ensure that the actual benefits of a given proposal justify its costs to individuals and society. Any program needs to be considered in light of the harm it inflicts on individual visitors, core American values, the economy and our relationship with our allies abroad, whose help is essential to the war on terrorism. This balancing process is difficult but necessary to develop appropriate policies that treat immigrants and visitors in a reasonable manner even as we guard against terror.
Another aspect of proportionality is to ensure that opportunities for redress are included in all new security programs. Watch lists, no-fly lists, nationality-neutral registration programs and expanded use of secure biometric documents are all critical aspects of security policy. While this is true, our fundamental American values demand that we protect the privacy of our citizens, immigrants and visitors alike to the greatest extent possible, and that we assure individuals who are falsely identified as threats that they will be given a fair chance to demonstrate their innocence.
In a post-9/11 world, we don’t have the luxury of chasing undocumented busboys and migrant grape-pickers. By undertaking comprehensive reform of our immigration laws and procedures to address those immigration issues not necessarily related to terrorism, such as the problem of undocumented migration to the United States, we can focus our enforcement resources on the greatest threats and realize those two key tenets of sound policy: effectiveness and proportionality.
We also can meet this daunting but urgent challenge by investing in improved human intelligence, providing sufficient financial and human resources for our federal immigration enforcement agencies to get the job done, and conducting the necessary research and development so that technology can best facilitate the identification of threats while simultaneously facilitating legitimate travel to the United States.
Of course, creating sound immigration policies is no small task. This is why we recommend that President Bush create a special commission on immigration and national security. This panel’s membership should include people from a wide variety of fields — including policy experts, professionals who work on immigration issues, representatives of industries that rely on foreign visitors (such as universities and tourism) and immigrants themselves. The commissioners should be appointed by the Republican and Democratic leaderships of the House and Senate, in recognition of Congress’s constitutional authority over immigration policy, as well as by the president.
The panel could advance the national discussion on immigration, play a key role in finding answers to the difficult questions we now face and serve as a unified voice for reform. One need only look at the example of the 9/11 Commission, whose recommendations are already having significant influence on Washington.
All of us have important contributions to make in this critical discussion of how to move forward on immigration policy. More important: We all have a stake in a successful outcome.
Jerome Teller is the chairman of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Leonard Glickman is HIAS’s president and CEO.