Guarding against terrorists’ exploitation of visa program would be costly, difficult

Growing fears that terrorists might exploit the visa waiver program, which applies to many European nationals, suggest that traditional U.S. mechanisms for controlling the influx of foreign visitors are inadequate in the post-Sept. 11, 2001 context. However, U.S. attempts to address this vulnerability would be economically costly and politically fraught.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) considers some European Muslims, who may enter the United States without a visa if they are EU citizens, to be potential security risks. In recent months, it has expressed particular concerns about
British Pakistanis, due to:

•fears that some members of this community have been radicalized;

•the presence, and training activities, of Islamist terrorist organizations in Pakistan; and

•the fact that such individuals often have no criminal records, and are not on U.S. watch lists.

However, the potential costs to government and business of closing this perceived security loophole, and the significant civil liberties concerned involved, make improving immigration security for “visa waiver” (usually European) nationals a steep policy challenge.

U.S. visa requirements

For non-nationals, there is no right to enter a sovereign state. However, states usually accord the right to enter to enter with conditions, which include time limits on stay and a visa issued by that state. U.S. visa policy for tourists distinguishes between:

•those with a visa requirement — people from countries with high emigration rates and/or that pose security risks;

•those for whom the visa is waived (mainly Western European countries); and

•Canadians (whose citizens now enter on the basis of a driver’s license or passport alone).

Immigration screening

The screening practice applied depends on the category of migrant. All passports are scanned against a central database; if the passport holder has been entered, for instance as an over-stayer, then he or she will be flagged. Visa-waiver nationals also hand in their visa waiver form and retain a stub. This stub is to be handed in when they leave the country. If they fail to do so, they are presumed to have over-stayed.

Extra scrutiny

Visa holders are subject to a significantly greater level of scrutiny:

•Watch lists. Visa candidates have their application checked against watch lists, which usually include convicted criminals and those suspected of terrorist ties.

•Behavioral profiles. Consular officers attempt to develop behavioral profiles based on the information they secure, which are supposed to identify high-risk subjects:
Since 2002, nationals of states designated as “terrorist sponsors” by the State Department — North Korea, Cuba, Syria, Sudan and Iran — are interviewed by an officer and fill out an additional form.
Additional information is solicited on the applicant’s tribe or clan; affiliations with professional, social and charitable organizations; participation in military conflict and details of any military service; and specialized skills and training.

•Fingerprints. At U.S. ports, a fingerprint scan is compared with a fingerprint scan taken at the time of application, to confirm that the person presenting the visa is the one who applied for it.

•Students and teachers. There is a special background check in place for those who come to the United States to teach or study in particular (mainly technology-related) fields.

Perceived vulnerabilities

All immigration control measures are necessarily imperfect:

•Cost-benefit balance. A “perfect” security system would require extensive background checks on every foreigner, monitoring of the movement of that person once admitted, and confirmation that he or she left the country as promised. The costs would be enormous, and the time involved would cause endless travel delays.

•Risk calculation. Instead, governments categorize mass movements according to risks. Before Sept. 11, 2001, the main fear was over-staying, and the United States could be fairly sure that most citizens of rich countries would return to those countries. When they did not, the security consequences were negligible. Therefore, visa requirements clearly distinguished “desirable” from “undesirable” visitors.

•Changed risk perception. In an age of mass terrorism, this system is seen as inadequate. Terrorists do not uniformly come from the global south, but from radicalized communities across the globe. Moreover, the costs of failure, in the form of destroyed U.S. property and lost lives, are high.

Justified fears?

There has only been one case of a U.K. visa-waiver visitor who posed a threat to the United States: Richard Reid, a U.K. Muslim convert who attempted to blow up an American Airlines aircraft in December 2001. The Sept. 11 hijackers were all foreign students on legal visas. Nevertheless, security policy is also necessarily directed at hypothetical threats.

Obstacles to improvement

However, addressing this perceived vulnerability will be difficult, because the available options are costly, or doubtful in their effects, or both:

•‘Special’ visas? A separate visa requirement imposed only upon British-Pakistani citizens would be without precedent in international law. It would be impossible to identify such individuals systematically, and the U.K. government would not help Washington to do so.

•U.K. visitor visas? Imposing a visa requirement on all U.K. citizens would be the most effective means to increase security while avoiding concerns about racial profiling. However, it would face massive opposition, not least from U.S. corporations, and the State Department would not back it.

•Expanded profiling? Racial profiling is controversial, and any expansion of it would lead to fierce domestic and international criticism. It would also likely be ineffective:

U.K. Pakistanis could not be distinguished from the broader South Asian community; so Indians and Bangladeshis would be affected as well.

The exercise would miss Muslims converts, who — like all converts — often hold the most extreme views. Reid’s example is a case in point.

Terrorists are often one step ahead of profilers. They could utilize white converts when South Asians are profiled, and dispatch operatives in business suits when religiously observant individuals with characteristic clothing are profiled.

Effective risk management

More effective security measures would emphasize managing risk using existing resources:

•Enforce existing measures. The Sept. 11 hijackers were single young men without property in their home countries (typical of visa over-stayers), and the personal information they provided was inconsistent and full of errors. They should not have been granted visas. The gaps in pre-2001 visa administration were underlined when, after the attacks, two of the dead hijackers were granted extensions to their student visas through the mail.

•Advance forms. The visa waiver system could be retained, but require applicants to fill out forms weeks in advance of their travel. This would be a visa system in all but name, allowing more time to check names against government watch lists.

•Data retention. Information submitted by online visa applicants could be permanently retained, allowing for more extensive checks. However, this proposal would likely generate protests in the United Kingdom and other European countries on data security and civil liberties grounds.

Significantly, none of these measures is likely to identify and screen out the individuals that most concern U.S. security authorities: radicals without criminal or terrorist backgrounds.

Oxford Analytica is an international consulting firm providing strategic analysis on world events for business and government leaders. See www.oxan.com .