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Closed-Minded on the Border

Author: Edward Alden, Bernard L. Schwartz Senior Fellow
November 23, 2008
Washington Post

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The day after the Nov. 4 presidential election, I was chatting with a young immigrant from Sudan as I waited to do a radio interview. He was gushing over the election results. "Can you imagine when he puts his hand on the Bible and says, ‘I, Barack Hussein Obama'?" he said, putting the emphasis on the middle name. "It is amazing."

For many in America's immigrant communities, the election of the son of a Kenyan father and an American mother represents not so much a healing of America's racial wounds as a chance to bridge the divide that has opened between the United States and the rest of the world in the past eight years. Of the many mistakes we made in the reaction to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, one of the most damaging was slamming the door on our friends in an ill-considered effort to keep our enemies out.

Instead of continuing to embrace the massive flow of talent, energy and initiative that the rest of the world has long offered the United States, we launched an expensive, futile experiment to see whether we could seal our borders against the ills of the world, from terrorists to drugs to illegal migrants. This effort has betrayed both our ideals and our interests. Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a skilled hand at handling border issues who is widely believed to be Obama's choice for secretary of homeland security, has a rare opportunity to get immigration policy back on track--to improve our security without sacrificing our openness.

The current system was built in the wake of 9/11, but it will have to be reformed in the shadow of the economic crisis. That will be a political challenge, but we have already driven away too many talented immigrants through short-sighted policies that see them more as a threat than as a windfall for the U.S. economy. Immigrant numbers will fall during the recession as job opportunities dwindle, but when the economy recovers, we will find ourselves competing to get them back.

Napolitano could start her overhaul by considering the case of Imad Daou. Like the president-elect's father, Daou came to the United States on a student visa. A Christian from Lebanon, he arrived here in 2003 to study computer science at Texas A&M International University in Laredo. He fell in love with and became engaged to a Mexican-American woman, and in November 2003, they crossed the Rio Grande to visit her family in Mexico and share the news. But when the couple tried to cross back into Texas, U.S. border officials discovered that Daou had failed to comply with a rule put in place by John Ashcroft's Justice Department after 9/11, requiring all young men from Muslim and Arab countries to re-register with the U.S. government 30 days after arriving in the United States. Daou was unaware of the requirement.

He was slapped in handcuffs and jailed in Laredo for more than two months before being deported to Lebanon. The couple was married in the jail before he left, and a year later, his wife was able to bring him to live with her in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, which has been turned into a free-fire zone by warring drug gangs. Now she crosses the border each day to go to her teaching job in Laredo. He cannot accompany her; his deportation carried an automatic five-year ban on reentering the United States, and he would still need a pardon from the U.S. government before he would be able to return.

Why is this software engineer, now working for a firm in Mexico, being kept out? Because of a regulation that no longer exists. A year after Daou was deported, the Department of Homeland Security abolished the re-registration requirement, saying it had been of no use in identifying terrorists. "They put the rules in place to catch bad people," Daou told me, "and the good people fall into the trap." He just heard from Washington last month: It will be at least another year before his pardon application will even be reviewed.

Daou's story was only one of dozens of similar tales I have heard over the past several years. In all of them, measures aimed at catching or deterring terrorists instead trapped those who had, like so many waves of immigrants before them, followed their dreams and ambitions by coming to America. But they arrived in a different country.

After the shock of 9/11, the United States confronted a deadly serious challenge: how to prevent future terrorists from coming here to carry out further attacks. Many intelligent and overdue initiatives were rolled out, and they have made the country safer. In place of the fragmented and partial terrorist "watch lists" used before the 2001 attacks, for instance, the government has created a single, integrated list available to all front-line border officials and overseas embassies. DHS now gathers advance information on all overseas passengers to help identify potential threats before flights land in the United States. And great strides have been made in improving the security of identification documents and matching them to an individual's fingerprints so that terrorists or criminals cannot use false papers to enter the country. These "smart border" measures have largely been implemented without undue disruption to legitimate visitors or immigrants to the United States.

But alongside such sensible initiatives, the Bush administration decided to use immigration laws in far more aggressive and ruthless ways. Few Americans are aware of the vast powers the government wields here. Border inspectors can comb the laptop computer files of anyone entering the country, citizen or non-citizen, merely on suspicion of wrongdoing; ordinary constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure do not apply. Non-Americans suspected of violating immigration rules can be jailed for months or even years while their cases grind through immigration courts or while they await deportation. The government has exercised these powers to their fullest since 9/11.

Such trampling of American ideals is matched only by the damage to our interests. Openness to immigrants and to foreign students, entrepreneurs and visitors has long been this country's secret weapon. The world's best and brightest come to the United States in large numbers to study or work temporarily, and many end up staying. Early in the campaign, Obama lamented the post-9/11 decline in visas for foreign students, which he said "used to be one of the single best public-diplomacy tools in our possession."

No country has matched our ability to attract and inspire the world's talent, and the U.S. economy has reaped the benefits. While economic downturns inevitably lead to accusations that foreigners are stealing American jobs, the reality is that we have long attracted immigrants who innovate, create jobs and boost our economy. Some 40 percent of all new start-up companies in Silicon Valley, for instance, are headed by immigrants, according to a 2006 study for the National Venture Capital Association. But it doesn't take too many stories of delays, abuses or mistreatment at the hands of U.S. border or immigration officials to discourage people from coming here, particularly those whose talents offer them plenty of other options.

Not surprisingly, foreign enrollment at U.S. universities fell after 9/11, ending more than four decades of virtually uninterrupted growth. That trend has begun to reverse in the past two years, in part because of hard work by some DHS officials to ease the student visa application process. But in the meantime, Europe, Australia, Canada and even Japan have aggressively and successfully recruited foreign students and seen sharp rises in enrollment.

Overseas visits have yet to return to pre-9/11 levels, despite the weak dollar that until recently had made the United States a bargain for tourists. In a survey conducted earlier this year by the Council on State Governments, investment-promotion officials in three out of four states said they had faced problems getting visas for potential foreign investors. And the difficulties that U.S. companies face in recruiting the best foreign workers have led some, including Microsoft, to move some operations abroad to remain competitive.

Although several of the most disruptive post-9/11 measures have been eased or removed, the world has grown much warier of the United States. We continue to make it inordinately difficult for people to come here by requiring personal interviews of all visa applicants, even those who have been here many times before. Others face overly long delays for security screening, and many become entangled in the morass of a complex immigration system in desperate need of reform. While some progress is being made on those problems, the bulk of the money (as Napolitano has seen up close in Arizona) is pouring into the construction of barriers on the southern border, the hiring of more Border Patrol agents and the creation of an elaborate system to track the entry and exit of every foreigner who comes to the United States.

Tom Ridge, the former secretary of homeland security, told me that after 9/11, "The world was kind of surprised that we pulled in the welcome mat so quickly." The 2008 election was largely about two issues: restoring America's economy at home and repairing its image abroad. Putting out the welcome mat again is vital to both.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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