Immigration Reform Is About Stopping Terror, Remember?

As President Barack Obama hauls out what is essentially George W. Bush's defeated 2007 immigration reform bill, expect a redo of a nationwide fist fight over the wrong problem.

As was the debate then, the coming 2009-2010 contest will be framed as what to do about millions of illegal Mexicans already living in the U.S. It was all about Mexico-U.S. bilateralism, American agribusiness, and questions about anti-Latino xenophobia. But lost in all the indignation about where and when to wave Mexican flags was any consideration of the original catalyst that justifiably set the whole thing in motion: a desire by the president and Congress to stop border infiltrators who speak not Spanish but Arabic. To prevent, as best possible, the next terrorist attack by Muslim extremists coming over an unguarded American border.

Will the coming fight over immigration reform miss this again?

The Bush-Kennedy-Kyl-McCain comprehensive immigration reform bill died a violent political death just a little over two years ago. Senate Bill 1639's failure was largely due to the most controversial idea in it, which was that it would have granted a sort of temporary legalization -- a so-called "Z visa" -- to most everyone who'd already sneaked into the country.

Section 601 (h) would have granted a probationary legal status on all of these unauthorized people, mostly some 12 million Mexicans. It would have put them on a path to residency and eventual citizenship once they were fingerprinted and underwent a cursory computerized FBI background check. All hell broke loose over the idea of bestowing such rich rewards on so many Mexicans for doing wrong. There was a lot of back and forth over 601's likely effect on future immigration patterns between the two countries, the needs of American businesses, the likely administrative burdens, and so forth, as there should have been.

But most of the bill's architects and debaters in 2007 somehow entirely missed what one might have expected to be regarded an issue of equal footing, given that 9/11 was the instigator of that bill and a slew of other historic border security legislation since the attacks. It is that Islamic terrorists could very well be among those who stole over the border alongside Mexican laborers. As I have reported extensively, thousands of unauthorized immigrants hail from more than 40 Islamic nations. The traffic continues yet, from designated state sponsors of terrorism like Iran and Syria, as well as Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Not until June of 2007, when the bill was gasping its last breath, did Arizona Senator John Kyl finally wake up to the fact that Z visas would have granted legal status not only to Mexican laborers but also to anyone who'd made it from one of these countries where Islamic terrorist groups live and train to exploit any system weakness to attack again. Yet remarkably, no one until Kyl at that late hour in 2007 had even entertained the possibility that some of them might try.

The Department of Homeland Security lists more than 40 such "countries of interest," and when a migrant from one of them gets caught at the border, they do undergo a higher level of investigative scrutiny that goes with the label "special interest aliens." But statisticians and federal agencies that track illegal immigration say that for every person caught crossing the border, three to six get through to live amongst us. Following that logic and extrapolating from homeland security capture statistics, I postulate that up to 60,000 border jumpers from terrorist-harboring states in the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa are probably living somewhere in America.

Kyl told me in a telephone interview at the time that my reporting documenting this traffic inspired him to draft an amendment that would have very pointedly separated out such people from the vast sea of Latino laborers. Kyl told me his amendment would have required much more investigative concentration on people from "countries of interest" before Z visas impart to them legitimacy and freedom of movement:

"It's frightening. It's frustrating, because we're not stopping a lot of this activity today," Kyl told me. "And I am greatly concerned about the potential for future terrorist activity inside the U.S. I can not imagine why anybody would oppose it, and in fact in some respects it could be deemed as a predicate for doing more."