New York Times
October 30, 2001

Bush Announces a Crackdown on Visa Violators


WASHINGTON -- President Bush moved today to tighten immigration controls in order to keep potential terrorists out of the United States, partly by cracking down on foreigners who have stayed beyond the terms of their visas.

The president announced the creation of a new group of officials who will work to find and deport foreigners who have overstayed visas or are otherwise in the country illegally. Officials have said that at least two of the terrorists who carried out the suicide attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had overstayed their visas.

Mr. Bush made his announcement at the White House, in the first meeting of the Homeland Security Council, led by Tom Ridge. The president said his administration would work to make sure that foreign students who obtain visas to study in the United States actually enroll in class, or leave the country. Officials say one terrorist in the Sept. 11 attacks obtained a student visa to attend a Berlitz language course in California, but never showed up for class.

"We plan on making sure that if a person has applied for a student visa, they actually go to a college or university," Mr. Bush said. "And therefore we're going to start asking a lot of questions that heretofore have not been asked."

The president added that "never did we realize that people would take advantage of our generosity to the extent that they have."

The White House provided few details on how the new controls would be carried out or paid for. Officials at the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the agencies responsible for issuing and tracking visas, said they knew nothing beyond the president's announcement. State Department spokesmen referred reporters to immigration officials, saying they could answer questions on new visa procedures, but immigration officials referred reporters back to the State Department.

As part of its broader investigation into terrorism, the Justice Department has already detained more than 1,000 people since the Sept. 11 attacks. Civil liberties advocates say the government's refusal to disclose the identities of many of those held, or to specify charges against them, raises the specter of secret detentions. [Page B1.]

The White House announcement today seemed largely intended to reassure Americans that the government was moving aggressively to forestall further terrorist attacks. The president was aided in that task by two members of his family: his father, former President George Bush, and his brother Jeb, governor of Florida.

In Chicago, the former president helped Mayor Richard M. Daley reopen the Sears Tower observation deck, which had been closed since Sept. 11. "By reopening this symbol of strength and vitality in America's heartland," Mr. Bush said, "you're sending a clear message that the terrorists have failed."

In New York, Jeb Bush said on the ABC News television program "Good Morning America" that his brother had "transformed himself," had "risen to this challenge" and was "a lot like my father in a lot of ways."

In Washington, Mr. Ridge, the director of homeland security, said Attorney General John Ashcroft would lead the new immigration tracking team the president called it the "terrorist tracking task force" and would have what Mr. Ridge described as "a pretty broad" portfolio.

"The attorney general will take a look at all policies and procedures relating to access of noncitizens to this country," Mr. Ridge said. He said it was not yet clear whether the policy would require new legislation.

Before the attacks, the Bush administration had moved to be more open to immigration. Although Mr. Bush had made no final decision, Mr. Ashcroft and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell recommended in July that the administration allow some of the three million Mexicans who are in the United States illegally to apply for permanent status.

In the current climate, however, that plan has been shelved, at least for the foreseeable future.

"It's not dead," Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, said at a news briefing this afternoon. But Mr. Fleischer said that because Mr. Powell and Mr. Ashcroft had been involved with the war in Afghanistan, fighting anthrax and "other duties," the drafting of the new immigration policy "has not moved at the pace the president had hoped it would move."

An official of the Immigration and Naturalization Service said today that while it would be "premature" to discuss practical steps that might be recommended by the president's terrorist tracking task force, the I.N.S. already had a plan in the wings.

That plan, called a "student data collection system," would allow the immigration service, the State Department, and colleges and universities to make entries into a shared Internet database recording the arrival, college registration and curriculum of foreign students in the United States.

The official said the system was to take effect by 2003 unless Congress decided to finance it more quickly.

The president also announced today that he would tighten border controls with Canada and Mexico. Specifically, he said his administration would work with both countries to develop a shared immigration and customs database. He said he would also increase the number of immigration and customs agents assigned to fighting terrorism.

"The American people need to know that we're doing everything we possibly can to prevent and disrupt any attack on America, and that we're doing everything we can to respond to attacks," Mr. Bush said after meeting with other top government officials including Mr. Ashcroft, Mr. Powell and Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser at the opening session of the Homeland Security Council, the new, domestic-security equivalent of the National Security Council.

Mr. Bush also said Americans should continue to go about their lives, even though the nation was on the highest alert against more terrorist attacks.

"I recognize it's a fine balance," he said, adding that "every American is a soldier, and every citizen is in this fight."

Copyright 2001, New York Times Company. All rights reserved.

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