However, because of failure at the enforcement task, President Bush has snubbed the agency and announced a new government task force to help trace, detain and/or deport errant foreigners.
Immigration officials said they were surprised by the news and learned of this when the president announced his intentions to the press.
But an even bigger surprise came to the public subsequent to Bush's announcement. That was when Michael Becraft, acting deputy director of immigration, testified before House lawmakers and said the immigration service and State Department have no accurate audit of students with visas or the location of these people.
One estimate puts that number at 600,000. One aim of the task force is to see if foreign students who said they would attend U.S. schools actually do.
Bush hopes this new group will provide a firmer hand to foreigners "who take advantage of our generosity." What the president calls a "foreign terrorist tracking task force" would "make sure that the land of the free is as safe as possible from people who might come to our country to hurt people," the president said. The task force would provide better coordination and communication between agencies dealing with immigrants, particularly those here on student visas.
Bush's announcement came after it was learned that at least two of the terrorists at the World Trade Center were here with expired visas. One terrorist was here on a student visa but never attended a class. Some of the known terrorists involved in the Trade Center and Pentagon aerial assaults were in this country legally.
It's ironic that Bush, who prior to Sept. 11 favored opening wider the door to unlawful Mexican immigrants, now has done a 180-degree turn on immigration. But, as Bush told reporters recently, "The mood of the country is certainly different from what it was on Sept. 10."
Apparently his ideas on immigration controls have changed, too. Meanwhile, some congressional lawmakers in both parties have proposed legislation that would impose further restrictions on new visa applications.
Although the Sept. 11 massacres in Washington and New York City provided grim reminders of several problems in U.S. immigration, particularly where matters of national security are concerned, not all those problems are due to immigration workers' ineptitude.
If the immigration service fell behind in its duties, past Republican and Democratic administrations as well as Congress may be part of the problem. They have forced the agency through policy and funding to focus its enforcement duties almost entirely along the border between Mexico and the United States. In New York, the focus has been on undocumented Chinese.
This disproportionate attention to enforcement in certain areas has resulted in a weak immigration agency, a demoralized Border Patrol and a porous national defense system. The evidence of this could no longer by ignored by Bush and lawmakers.
If given adequate financial support, personnel and reorganization, the immigration service probably could achieve the president's goals. So could U.S. consulates, the gatekeepers of visas. It's unfortunate, however, that rather than fix what's broken, the president sought instead to add another bureaucratic layer of government.
The president shouldn't be faulted for wanting to plug holes in an obvious sieve in our national security system. However, immigrants may have reason to question where all this will lead in a country that historically has welcomed foreigners, the majority of whom don't take advantage of our generosity or try to exterminate us.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Servic