Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Immigration's Underbelly

The Todd Bensman's thorough immigration series in the San Antonio Express News is a must read on immigration. If you're relatively new to the issue, most of it will shock you.

Breaching America: War refugees or threats? [Excerpts]

Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Homeland Security and a former assistant director of the FBI, said the nation's vulnerability from this human traffic is unassailable — even if not a single terrorist has ever been caught.

"This isn't a partisan issue," McCraw said. "If the good guys can come, you know, then so can the bad guys. We are at risk."

Though most who cross America's borders are economic migrants, the government has labeled some terrorists. Their ranks include:

Mahmoud Kourani, convicted in Detroit as a leader of the terrorist group Hezbollah. Using a visa obtained by bribing a Mexican official in Beirut, the Lebanese national sneaked over the Mexican border in 2001 in the trunk of a car.

Nabel Al-Marahb, a reputed al-Qaida operative who was No. 27 on the FBI's most wanted terrorist list in the months after 9-11, crossed the Canadian border in the sleeper cab of a long-haul truck.

Express-News Special Report

Farida Goolam Mahammed, a South African woman captured in 2004 as she carried into the McAllen airport cash and clothes still wet from the Rio Grande. Though the government characterized her merely as a border jumper, U.S. sources now say she was a smuggler who ferried people with terrorist connections. One report credits her arrest with spurring a major international terror investigation that
stopped an al-Qaida attack on New York.

One of 10 "special-interest" immigrants is actually caught
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection apprehension numbers, agents along both borders have caught more than 5,700 special-interest immigrants since 2001. But as many as 20,000 to 60,000 others are presumed to have slipped through, based on rule-of-thumb estimates typically used by homeland security agencies.

"You'd like to think at least you're catching one out of 10," McCraw said. "But that's not good in baseball and it's certainly not good in counterterrorism."

Other federal agencies besides the Border Patrol have caught thousands more of the crossers inland after it was discovered they were in the country illegally, including 34,000 detainees from Syria, Iran, Sudan and Libya between 2001 and 2005, according to a homeland security audit last year of U.S. detention centers for immigrants. Then there is an unknown number caught by Mexico — an inveterate partner, as it turns out.

Why couldn't a terrorist do it?
If an Iraqi Christian with few resources and little more on his mind than fleeing a war for a better future in America can make his way from a designated state sponsor of terror like Syria for less than $4,000, then why couldn't a well-financed Muslim terrorist of equal determination?

Onesies and twosies
Though the Texas Legislature this month passed Gov. Rick Perry's $100 million border-security proposal, some lawmakers have belittled the idea that terrorists might blend in as a politically expedient cover for a racist anti-Mexican agenda.

Texas Rep. Rick Noriega, D-Houston, who commanded a National Guard unit in the Laredo area, said Middle Eastern immigrants don't worry him because they only come across in "onesies and twosies."

With a little help from a friend
...some foreign embassies and consulate offices based in the Middle East have no qualms about providing Iraqis and local citizens with visas that enable them to get within striking distance of a U.S. border. One of them is the Guatemala consulate office in Jordan.

The consulate is about 150 miles southeast of Damascus, in Amman. A blue and white national flag of Guatemala snaps atop a 20-foot flagpole on a busy street in the financial district. The flag advertises the presence in a strip shopping center of Guatemala's "Honorary Consul" in the Kingdom of Jordan: Patricia Nadim Khoury, who represents Guatemala's foreign affairs from a home-furnishings shop catering to Amman's wealthy.

This is the only place that Boles' smuggler could have secured a real Guatemala tourist visa.

Venezuela is another jumping-off point to the American border, according to court records of smuggling cases.

Because of its antagonistic relationship with the United States, Venezuela does not cooperate on counterterrorism measures, according to the U.S. government, and shows no concerns about issuing visas to special-interest migrants.

One day recently, the Venezuelan Embassy in Damascus, its walls bedecked with large portraits of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, was packed with Syrians seeking one of nine types of visas offered.

The U.S. State Department has complained in recent years about Venezuela's cozy relationship with Syria and Iran. Earlier this year, the first nonstop flights began from Tehran, Iran, to Caracas, Venezuela — a development that some U.S. counterterrorism specialists say opens a new avenue for potential terrorists to the American border.

And our Cuban friends
Boles may have had his Guatemala visitor's visa, but he would not be able to complete his trip from Moscow without a transit visa through Cuba.

This would prove to be no problem in Damascus, and he has plenty of company among Syrians, Iraqis, Jordanians, Lebanese and others passing through.

Carrying his Iraqi passport, Boles took a 15-minute cab ride to the three-story whitewashed Cuban Embassy just three blocks from the American Embassy.

Inside, friendly clerical workers handed him an application. He filled it out and handed over $70 cash with his passport and some passport-sized pictures. About a half-hour later, his passport was returned stamped, no questions asked.

Cuba's consul in Damascus said in an interview that his country happily grants visas to any Middle Easterner who asks "because America doesn't give anyone the opportunity to take refuge, especially after 9-11."

"But we work another way," said Armando Perez Suarez. "We put conditions on American people who are making war with everyone. The Arab people are the peaceful ones. We give visas to anybody who wants to visit our country."

Suarez said he is well aware that Cuba, with its economic problems and poverty, is not anyone's idea of a final destination.

"After that, if he wants to travel to any other country, the U.S., or Central America, this is not our problem," Suarez said. "It's not our burden."

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