WASHINGTON—Changes in immigration policy and practices being implemented to protect Americans from terrorism should target the problem without overreaching, said an official with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“It's a delicate line to walk, but [maintaining safeguards for legitimate immigrants] serves the long-term interest of the United States, said Kevin Appleby, director of the bishops’ Office of Migration and Refugee Policy. “Immigration helps make the United States a powerful, diverse and strong nation.”

The bishops, meeting in Washington, D.C., in mid-November, issued a statement about the United States’ war on terrorism and how Catholics should respond to it. Part of the statement deals with immigrants and refugees and the need for tolerance of Arab-Americans, Muslims and foreigners in the country.

Said the bishops, “As criminal and civil investigations proceed and essential security measures are strengthened, our government must continue to respect the basic rights of all persons and in a special way of immigrants and refugees … Proposals to ensure the security of our legal immigration system and refugee program must avoid harming immigrants and refugees who represent no security threat. Enforcement actions must not be indiscriminate in their application or based upon ethnic background, national origin, or religious affiliation.”

In the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and in the midst of a continuing threat of biological and chemical terrorism, President Bush has called for tighter immigration policies. Most of the 19 alleged hijackers entered the country legally. And government officials have repeatedly warned that more terrorists may be lying low amid the vast Arab immigrant community.

In a presidential directive, Bush created a Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force, which will coordinate federal programs designed to deny entry into the U.S. of aliens associated with, suspected of being engaged in, or supporting terrorist activity. The task force also will help locate, detain, prosecute or deport such aliens already in the country.

The president also ordered a thorough review of student visa policies and practices to ensure that student visas are being issued appropriately. And he called for better-coordinated immigration and customs policies with Canada and Mexico. He ordered the Secretaries of State and Treasury and the Attorney General to work with those two countries to develop a shared immigration and customs control database.

As well, refugee admissions were suspended indefinitely Oct. 1 while the review of immigration policy is being conducted.

The USA Patriot Act, which the president signed in late October, among other things, allows the attorney general or the commissioner of immigration to certify an immigrant as being under suspicion of involvement in terrorism. Those individuals may then be held for up to seven days for questioning, after which they must be released if they are not charged with violations of the criminal or immigration codes.

Bishop DiMarzio's View

Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio of Camden, N.J., chairman of the Bishops’ Committee on Migration, said he finds some positive aspects in the changes, such as greater cooperation among federal agencies. But he is worried about anything that would risk falsely accusing the innocent and limit legitimate freedom, including detaining suspects indefinitely without charges.

“It's a little too open-ended,” Bishop DiMarzio said. “We need to have some due process. In the name of security, we can't give up every freedom.”

Appleby noted that the Church recognizes the right of a sovereign state to patrol its borders and defend its population. But he too feels that detention of suspects without charges could lead to abuses of “basic human rights.”

But Steven A. Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., said the provision is important for national security. In a national emergency such as the present one, it's important to safeguard information that might give the enemy vital secrets, he said. “You don't want to let people know how you know what he's up to. The embassy bombing trial in New York this year was a how-to manual for Al-Qaeda,” teaching the terrorist organization what to do better next time, Camarota said.

Donald Kerwin, chief operating officer of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network in Washington, admitted that there does have to be a certain amount of tightening up. He suggested the problem of terrorism calls for better intelligence and government coordination in immigration controls.

It also calls for more integration of immigrants, Kerwin added. After immigrants obtain legal status, they can go on to work toward citizenship.

But the tragic events of Sept. 11 have also raised the issue of whether all of America's population is loyal to the country's principles. “A sizeable number of new immigrants and their children may be bettering themselves economically and speaking English but not embracing American identity and patriotism,” John Fonte, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, wrote on National Review Online.

North American Border

Kerwin of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network warned that care needs to be taken in implementing a so-called North American border perimeter, especially in dealing with asylum seekers. The perimeter would require prescreening of immigrants before they get on a plane in their home countries. But if a legitimate asylum seeker is turned down in the prescreening, he would not be able to get a hearing in the U.S.

Said Kerwin, “We need to take another step to insure that they are not fleeing persecution from terrorists or a government violating their rights.”

Camarota, though, said there is “no way” to do an effective background check on someone seeking asylum from a country like Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, which probably would not cooperate with the U.S. or be truthful. In fact, if the person is escaping persecution, such a country might falsely accuse him of being a terrorist, ensuring that he is unable to escape.

The bishops’ Office of Migration and Refugee Policy issued a statement Nov. 14. It urged Congress “to call on the Bush administration to expedite the security review of visa issuance and admissions procedures … and resume refugee admissions to the United States as soon as possible.” The statement said that because of the immigration policy review, “it is likely that the [fiscal year] 2002 admissions ceiling of 70,000 will not be reached, thereby depriving thousands of deserving refugees of the opportunity to find freedom from persecution.”