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U.S.: Washington Strengthens Its Borders Against Terrorists

Stung by the 11 September attacks, the United States is taking concrete steps aimed at screening out terrorists. In Washington, RFE/RL correspondent Frank T. Csongos examines a new law passed by Congress and asks a leading expert about its implications.

Washington, 17 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The United States has stepped up efforts to keep terrorists from entering America by mandating the use of passports that are difficult to counterfeit, strengthening border patrols, and keeping a closer eye on visitors to the country.

U.S. President George W. Bush signed into law on 14 May legislation aimed at preventing terror attacks on America. The new law is in response to the 11 September suicide hijackings that killed about 3,000 people.

Protecting America's borders is no small task.

The United States has 12,000 kilometers of land and air borders shared with Canada and Mexico. Each year, about 30 million foreigners enter the country, most of them tourists and business executives. On land, more than 11 million trucks and 2 million rail cars cross into the country. Foreign-flag ships make 51,000 calls in U.S. ports annually.

The measure, passed without any dissent by the U.S. Congress, will require passports issued after 2003 to be tamper-proof and contain certain high-technology features.

In signing the legislation at the White House, Bush said: "It requires every foreign visitor desiring entrance into the United States to carry a travel document containing biometric identification -- that would be fingerprint or facial recognition -- that will enable us to use technology to better deny fraudulent entry into America."

The legislation also bars the use of most visas by people from countries listed by the State Department as terrorism sponsors. They include Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Cuba, Libya, and Syria.

The law strengthens already-existing provisions that planes and ships traveling from other countries provide lists of passengers and crew members to a U.S. border officer before arriving. It calls for a consolidated database of suspected terrorists that federal government agencies can use to screen visa applicants.

Under the legislation, 400 additional immigration investigators and inspectors will be hired. And foreigners already in the U.S. will be watched more closely. For example, schools will be asked to notify the government if a foreign student failed to show up to take classes. Until now, authorities did not make such systematic checks. That meant a potential terrorist could have entered the country, stating he or she was enrolling in a school, then disappear instead and plot a terror attack.

Bush said no nation can be totally secure. But he said without a more secure border the war against terror cannot be won. "The bill I sign today (14 May) enhances our ongoing efforts to strengthen our borders. The purpose of this bill is to help our country do a better job of border security."

Daniel Griswold is an associate director of the Washington-based Cato Institute, a private think tank. His specialty is the flow of people and goods across international borders. RFE/RL asked Griswold how difficult is it to prevent terrorists crossing into the U.S.: "Well, it is a challenge. It all rests ultimately with how good our intelligence is. We need to know who these people are who intend to do us harm."

Law enforcement experts agree America requires a border management system that keeps pace with expanding trade while protecting the United States from the threats of terrorist attack, illegal immigration, illegal drugs, and other contraband.

Griswold said the new law is well balanced by trying to protect Americans without throwing away the benefits of immigration and open society. "The danger to the United States is not from immigration. None of these 11 September terrorists were immigrants. They came here on temporary, non-immigrant visas. The legislation that the president signed this week was just the right response."

Bush said America will not be transformed into a closed society because of terrorists: "America is not a fortress, and never wants to be a fortress. We're a free country. We're an open society."

The Immigration and Naturalization Service, the leading agency responsible for keeping undesirable foreigners out of the United States, has doubled its personnel in the past decade from 18,400 to 36,400. Its budget has grown from $1.5 billion to $5.5 billion. However, recent studies say internal law enforcement has been left to just 2,000 investigators to track millions of illegal foreign residents.