It does not seem possible that eight years could have passed since that terrible day when the U.S. was attacked. 9/11 marked many lasting changes here in the U.S., but it has forever changed how the issue of immigration is viewed. Immigration through an enforcement only lens has led to an incredible memory loss by some as to the positive contributions of immigrants to this country. Further, the issue of illegal immigration to this country has almost blotted out the legal immigration process.

To improve the security of this country, we are constantly balancing the security gained by measures against the cost of those measures to our core beliefs. This important focus on security must be reviewed through a critical lens to accurately assess any gains in security.

The 19 hijackers were all issued visas. They did not cross through a land border and they were not from Mexico and they were not undocumented. They all utilized the legal process to enter this country. According to the 9/11 Staff Investigations report, beginning in 1997, the 19 hijackers submitted 24 visa applications and received 23 visas. Each time, those visa applications were run against the State Department’s lookout database. Securing our land borders to the extent possible is an important goal, and we are using tremendous resources on illegal entry to the U.S. The land border should be one of the last lines of defense. How have our resources devoted to intelligence, soft power, visa issuance, and consular training paid off? We were unable to even link up actual names of some of the hijackers via a database hit.

Certainly, the use of the biometric requirement to apply for a visa adds the positive layer of a one to one match between a set of biometric and biographic data. In addition, the confirmation of that identity at a port of entry adds an additional layer of protection, but I would like understand how robust the cooperation between our intelligence community, other nations, and the Department of State has become to assess potential terrorist threats through any visa process.

My tenure in AILA leadership on the executive committee started in June of 2001, and my experience within AILA leadership has been defined by the impact of September 11. On April 12, 2002, due to my experience on border security, admission, and consular work, I found myself testifying on the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Citizenship supporting measures which certain AILA members and national staff had spent countless hours reviewing to improve the visa process and border security. I was very honored to have the opportunity on behalf of AILA to testify before the committee and I will never forget Senator Kennedy’s gracious introduction. I was also incredibly humbled and saddened by the presence of Ms. Mary Ellen Salamone, who provided testimony as the Director of the Families of September 11 as well as by the presence of Senator Byrd, who also provided testimony.

As an aside for those who wish to paint AILA as an “open borders” organization (whatever that phrase means) and with allegations as to AILA lawyers regarding marginal support for the application of law, our members’ quiet but dedicated work to improve security in the immigration process should serve as clear evidence against these slanderous critiques.

In the aftermath of September 11 and with the understandable desire to always improve security, we have seen more focus on rooting out undocumented immigrants in the name of security. Trying to categorize undocumented immigrants though in the same category as the 9/11 terrorists does not show an understanding of threats of terrorism versus a violation of immigration law. Those issues should never be conflated. We must focus our limited resources wisely. Continuing to put off immigration reform and creating a better functioning system for our economy only reduces our capacity to be more effective in using those resources to meet true security threats.