Few Profiles in Courage On Immigration Debate

The story was so juicy, so lip-smackingly tabloid that even The New York Times slapped it on page 1, above the fold: Huffman Aviation, a flight school in Venice, Fla., received notice from the Immigration and Naturalization Service that Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi had been approved for student visas to study there. The notice arrived on March 11, six months after the hopeful students piloted their debut airline flights into the World Trade towers.

If there is justice, Atta and al-Shehhi have begun a long, slow broil. Since they took almost 3,000 innocents with them, perhaps there is no justice in any metaphysical sense. Certainly the wheels of earthly justice turn very slowly when the enforcers of our immigration laws take six months to rule on two mass murderers, and then rule that the mass murderers are O.K. by Uncle Sam.

This is a mechanical glitch rather than an error of judgment–a machine running on automatic, not a bureaucrat making a grotesque mistake. Even so, it highlights a great problem: The I.N.S. is overwhelmed and overworked.

Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a moderate anti-immigration group, lists the reasons in an article in the current issue of National Review . The agency computer system limps from cheapskate decisions made in the 1970’s. Applications for asylum and temporary admission doubled, more or less, from the 1980’s to the 1990’s; over the same period, applications for citizenship tripled. In the last six years, the backlog of unresolved applications quadrupled.

The I.N.S. is about to get a lot more work if the Senate follows the lead of the House, which voted, on March 12, to legalize any illegal immigrant living here who pays a $1,000 fine and produces a sponsor. The House rushed the measure through on a procedural fast track to accommodate the diplomacy of President Bush, who wanted to give President Vicente Fox of Mexico an amnesty bill as a present when they meet this week. Mr. Fox wants amnesty so he can offload as many of Mexico’s poor as possible while he tries to reform his nation’s economy. Mr. Bush wants amnesty in the desperate hope of courting the Hispanic vote, the Great Brown Whale of bemused Republican strategists. American business groups want the amnesty to maintain profits based on cheap Mexican labor. I eat in Manhattan restaurants and shop at upstate farm stands, so I understand the argument. But the proposed amnesty would not be restricted to immigrants from Mexico, and the additional work will simply add to the I.N.S.’s burdens.

Most immigrants are decent people, and most of them become good citizens, given time to assimilate. Immigration skeptics argued before Sept. 11 that America had taken in a record influx over the last 35 years, and that it was time for a digestive pause. The argument gains new urgency now–not because any more than a handful of immigrants are terrorists, but because unassimilated immigrant communities give those terrorists a convenient sea to swim in. Hermetic, monoglot neighborhoods, unfamiliar with and suspicious of American institutions, can be the cocoons in which future citizens slowly stir. But now they can also be the places where the next Attas bunk. Time and prudence cure most of the problems arising from mere strangeness. But to deal with murderers bent on our destruction, we must rely on other measures.

Politically vulnerable members of the House understood the post-Sept. 11 logic of the situation. Five Republican Congressmen who are seeking Senate seats this fall voted against the amnesty. So did two Senate-minded House Democrats. The only G.O.P. Senate hopeful who voted the way the White House wanted was Representative John Sununu of New Hampshire. Considering how well Mr. Sununu’s father managed the political fortunes of President Bush’s father, this is not a good omen.

Meanwhile, over at the Department of Transportation–and behind the pat-down lines at every airport–sits Secretary Norman Mineta. In the Gulf War, we had Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf; in the Terror War, we have Norman Mini-Mineta. He is the man behind the policies that give Iowa grannies the same scrutiny as buff Saudis.

This is not a new position for the Transportation Secretary. During the Gulf War, when Mr. Mineta was a Democratic Congressman on the House Public Works and Transportation Committee, he insisted that security measures not single out travelers of Middle Eastern origin.

The concerns of Mr. Mineta, and others like him, were heeded. Earlier this month, The New York Times and The Washington Post told us that nine of the 19 hijackers received extra scrutiny when they checked in on Sept. 11. But only their checked baggage got the twice-over; they themselves were not subject to manual screening, since the F.A.A. had ruled, in the 1990’s, that frisking based on ethnic or national profiles could be “perceived” as discriminatory.

Mr. Mineta’s hatred of profiling is deep and direct. When he was 10 years old, he and his Japanese-American family were whisked off to an internment camp. But in order to avoid such injustices now, aren’t we overcorrecting?

The irony of our multicultural moment is that one American institution which is truly a gorgeous mosaic–not one pieced together by politicians, but shaped by its own efficient and internally consistent rules–has been doing very well in the Terror War, and that is the elite of the American military. The Rangers, the Marines and the Green Berets take young men of all regions, religions and backgrounds, suck them through their training, and produce intelligent and capable warriors. With the help of local allies and their own superior technology, they pulled down a hostile power in a matter of weeks. They didn’t capture Osama bin Laden, but they took his country away from him. When Al Qaeda regroups, as it recently did in the Shah-i-Kot Valley, they go in and break it up. There will be more battles and more battle deaths, but who doubts that they will be equal to the challenge?

A nation run like the Rangers would be Sparta, not America. So why load America, in a time of crisis, with assignments it cannot handle?

Few Profiles in Courage On Immigration Debate