Washington Post
November 1, 2001

Justice Dept. Announces Tougher Immigration Rules

By Mary Beth Sheridan

WASHINGTON -- Attorney General John D. Ashcroft yesterday announced new measures designed to keep terrorists out of the United States, including an expansion of the list of foreign groups whose members will be automatically barred from entering the country.

"America will not allow terrorists to use our hospitality as a weapon against us," Ashcroft said at an afternoon news conference.

The 19 terrorists who carried out the deadly Sept. 11 attacks entered the United States on temporary visas obtained at U.S. consular offices overseas. The ease with which they entered the country and stayed here undetected has prompted criticism of immigration policies and intelligence practices.

Ashcroft yesterday asked Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to add 46 groups to the list of terrorist organizations whose supporters are not allowed to visit the United States. Powell's approval, considered a formality, would bring the total number of groups to 74.

However, Ashcroft promised to aggressively target an even larger pool of people who can be denied entry to the United States under the far-reaching anti-terrorism legislation approved last week.

The law allows authorities to exclude members of any group allegedly connected to terrorism. And it doesn't apply solely to extremists themselves; people who contributemoney or support to such groups -- even for innocent activities -- can be kept out of the country.

Civil libertarians and immigration advocates have expressed concern that people unrelated to terrorism could be tarred by the law.

"The government has shifted focus from the actual terrorists . . . to people who merely have some sort of political association with a proscribed or disfavored group," said David Cole, a constitutional law scholar at Georgetown University.

"I don't think it's fair to treat someone who sends medicine to a hospital as a terrorist, simply because the hospital is connected to an organization we've designated as a proscribed group," he added.

The alleged terrorist groups posted by Ashcroft yesterday included organizations that have already been named by the White House and the Treasury Departmentas alleged backers of terrorism, or by the State Department in its annual terrorism report. Many are Middle Eastern groups, but there are also organizationsfocused on Rwanda, Ireland and other countries.

Several of the groups are linked to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network, which President Bush has blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks that killed nearly 4,700 people in New York, the Pentagon and Pennsylvania, Ashcroft said.

To date, 1,087 people have been arrested or detained in the investigations of the Sept. 11 attacks, including 182 charged with immigration violations, the Justice Department said yesterday.

Ashcroft said foreigners who use their prominence to endorse terrorist activity will also be kept out of the United States. That appeared to be a reference to people such asOmar Abdel Rahman, an Islamic clericaccused of inspiring the terrorists who bombed the Word Trade Center in 1993.

Ashcroft also said new security measures would be imposed to tighten the system under which foreign visitors obtain U.S. visas. While he gave few details, officials said applicants for visitors' visas would have to fill out an extra form that asks for more biographical and other information, such as past travel.

Normally, U.S. diplomats abroad approve or reject foreigners' applications for visas, based on documents and a check of an automated database of suspected criminals and terrorists. Many applicants are also interviewed.

In some cases, foreigners' applications are sent back to Washington for extra screening. That often happens to citizens of countries considered sponsors of terrorism, such as Iran or Iraq.

The attorney general announced that Steven C. McCraw, an intelligence official at FBI headquarters, will head a new task force focused both on keeping foreign terrorists out of the country and detaining those who have already arrived. McCraw's task force will try to coordinate the work of federal agencies that have guarded their intelligence reports in the past. The lack of information-sharing also has been criticized in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Mary Ryan, head of the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs, which oversees visa issuance, reiterated at a congressional hearing yesterday that her staff had no information that any of the 19 alleged hijackers was considered a security risk at the time they sought travel documents.

"We have the best system in the world," Ryan said, referring to her department's automated computer system of criminal and terrorist suspects. But the system, she said, is only as good as the information in it.

"We have to get better information from our law enforcement and intelligence agencies," she said.

Ryan and Michael Becraft, acting deputy commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, came under fire yesterday at the hearing held by two House subcommittees examining the student visa system.

Legislators criticized the INS for being unable to track foreign nationals who entered the country on student visas but didn't show up at their schools. One of the alleged hijackers, Hani Hanjour, held a student visa but never attended the school he had applied to. The other 18 alleged hijackers were issued tourist and business visas.

Becraft said a computerized system to keep track of foreign students could be up and running by next summer. The system was mandated by Congress in 1996 but has faced opposition from universities and members of Congress.

Staff writer Dan Eggen contributed to this report.

Copyright 2001, Washington Post Company. All rights reserved.

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