from Renewing America

Visas, the Economy, and 9/11: Will Evidence Trump Fear?

9/11 Commission Chairman Governor Thomas Kean and Vice-Chairman Lee Hamilton at a press conference at the close of the final hearing of the Commission in Washington on June 17, 2004. (Shaun Heasley/Courtesy Reuters)

May 18, 2012

9/11 Commission Chairman Governor Thomas Kean and Vice-Chairman Lee Hamilton at a press conference at the close of the final hearing of the Commission in Washington on June 17, 2004. (Shaun Heasley/Courtesy Reuters)
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Will Congress finally act to solve some of the problems with visa issuance that have plagued the United States over the past decade, keeping out tourists, students, and business travelers and driving away foreign investment? I testified yesterday to the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on immigration enforcement, which was considering H.R. 3039, the “Welcoming Business Travelers and Tourists to America Act” introduced by Republican Congressman Joe Heck (R-NV).

The legislation is one of more than half a dozen bills introduced this session to deal with visa problems. Action by Congress is needed on a package of measures, and I explained why in my testimony to the committee.

But positive progress continues to be opposed by those who see any effort to facilitate travel to the United States as inevitably weakening security, despite abundant evidence that, as I put it in my testimony, “efficiency and security can go hand-in-hand, and the United States does not need to harm its economy to safeguard its borders.”

I was particularly dismayed by the testimony of Janice Kephart, who was one of the co-authors of the 9/11 Commission’s superb staff report 9/11 and Terrorist Travel. That report was extremely valuable to me when I wrote my book The Closing of the American Border, and remains the best single source available on the many mistakes made in visa procedures that allowed the 9/11 hijackers to obtain permission to travel to the United States.

But Ms. Kephart, who now works for the Center for Immigration Studies, used her testimony to claim that the 9/11 Commission was somehow opposed to efficient visa processing, and that H.R. 3039, which is a very modest effort designed to facilitate travel, would violate the Commission’s recommendations. But a careful reading of either the staff report she worked on or the best-selling 9/11 Commission Report makes it clear that this is specious. The commissioners were acutely aware that, while visa security needed to be improved, it must be done in a way that did not drive away foreign visitors.

To quote from p. 389 of the 9/11 Commission's report:

“Our border screening system should check people efficiently and welcome friends. Admitting large numbers of students, scholars, businesspeople, and tourists fuels our economy, cultural vitality, and political reach. There is evidence that the present system is disrupting travel to the United States. Overall, visa applications in 2003 were down over 32 percent since 2001. In the Middle East, they declined about 46 percent. Training and the design of security measures should be continuously adjusted.”

That last sentence is perhaps the most important. There have been tremendous improvements in visa security over the past decade, and the steep declines in visa travel that occurred in the years after 9/11 are gradually being reversed. But it is an evolving challenge. There is no question that al-Qaeda, despite its weaknesses, continues to look for new ways to attack the United States. The recent revelations that al-Qaeda had developed a more sophisticated underwear bomb are only the latest evidence. The United States must continue to develop and improve its travel and border security systems.

But, as the 9/11 Commission understood, we do ourselves no favors by shutting out friends in order to keep away foes. Hopefully Congress is finally getting that message as well.

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