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Strip Terrorists of Their Legal Cover

Better ID systems would make it easier to pinpoint these individuals.

January 22, 2002|DAN STEIN

A lax visa issuance and tracking system let the Sept. 11 terrorists get into the U.S., but it was a lax domestic documentation system that allowed them to take flying lessons, rent apartments and safe houses and blend into the United States' vast and diverse population.

One of the first orders of important business for Congress in 2002 will be to approve the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act, a bipartisan bill that would greatly improve our ability to identify potential terrorists before they reach our country.

The bill would require more extensive background checks on visa applicants from terrorist-sponsoring countries, the use of machine-readable travel documents and visas and better reporting procedures for people granted permission to reside temporarily in the United States.

Yet even with those reforms, more is needed. It must be easier for officials to flag those who manage to slip through the visa net. Terrorists do not necessarily come only from certain countries or fit a particular ethnic profile.

The two most important pieces of identification that allow Americans to live, work, obtain credit, rent apartments, attend school, get on airplanes and do virtually everything else were easily acquired by the 19 terrorists as well as millions of other people who are in the United States illegally.

Every one of the terrorists involved in the attacks had a valid Social Security number issued by the federal government and a valid driver's license issued by a state government. With these documents, people intent on inflicting the most grievous harm and murdering the greatest number of people were able to become inconspicuous needles in an enormous haystack.

There are some obvious and basic document reforms needed to remedy this hole in our security. To begin with, any adult applicant for a Social Security number should be required to undergo a thorough background check to verify that he or she is in the United States legally. If the individual has been admitted temporarily, the Social Security document should be different from permanent ones and should expire at the same time as the person's visa. The Social Security document itself should be made more secure and include features that allow it to be as easily verified as a credit card.

All states should have to require a valid Social Security number before issuing a driver's license. Like Social Security numbers, driver's licenses for people on temporary visas should expire with the visas, or sooner. A common motor vehicle database would ensure that multiple driver's licenses were not issued to the same Social Security number. Driving is a privilege, not a right, so all states should have minimum uniform security standards to guard against identity theft.

With any secure and reliable form of identification, citizens should be entitled to live, work and move about the United States easily and with a full expectation of privacy. With secure travel documents and visas, legitimate visitors to our country could do those things that visitors are entitled to do, but would find it difficult to do things like get jobs, rent apartments or take flying lessons.

We must have a system to distinguish between lawful members of our society, legitimate visitors and those who are here illegally. With the establishment of secure identity documents, those who are here illegally or on non-immigrant visas will find that the camouflage of our vast and diverse country has disappeared.

We cannot stop every potential terrorists from getting into the country, but we certainly can do our best to take away their cover.

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Dan Stein is executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

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