By MATTHEW B. STANNARD
San Francisco Chronicle
February 27, 2006
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, that question has occurred to hundreds of American policymakers, politicians and residents of border regions.
The answer may be: "Not much."
The threat of terrorism has become a major driving force for activists and politicians behind proposals to fence all or much of the United States-Mexico border.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said during a recent Senate Select Intelligence Committee hearing that she was worried the southern border was becoming "a major gateway for terrorists to access the United States." And Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., has cited the threat of terrorism in proposing 700 miles of fence, which the House of Representatives approved in legislation that heads to the Senate next month.
The social and economic impacts of illegal immigration, once the major themes sounded by fence supporters, are not even mentioned in two television spots created by weneedafence.com, a self-described conservative nonprofit group advocating a border fence. Instead, the spots focus on the surging number of non-Mexicans arrested trying to cross the southwest border illegally - including the trickle from countries such as Iran, Sudan and Syria that the U.S. State Department accuses of sponsoring terrorism, and other nations such as Iraq and Lebanon where known terrorist groups are based.
Some critics accused the group of using fear to build public support for a fence. But Colin Hanna, president of weneedafence.com, said the spots were intended to educate the public about a real problem.
"I'm not suggesting for a minute that all of them are terrorists," Hanna said. "I am suggesting that some of those are."
While people from such countries make up much less than 1 percent of all non-Mexicans arrested trying to cross the border, an infinitesimal portion of cross-border traffic, that doesn't lessen the threat, Hanna said.
"The suitcase bomb threat, I think, is a real threat."
Many terrorism analysts in government and academia agree there is at least some threat of al Qaeda-type terrorists crossing illegally from Mexico. But it's not clear a double-layer steel fence with monitoring equipment, as is proposed, will address that threat.
Terrorist groups use forged documents, human smugglers and other techniques to move trained agents around the world, said Janice Kephart, counsel to the Sept. 11 commission and co-author of a report on terrorist travel for the commission.
Kephart's report cited the case of a Tijuana cafe owner who was convicted in 2002 of smuggling, into the United States, Lebanese nationals sympathetic to Hamas and Hezbollah, which the U.S. considers terrorist groups. He may have smuggled in a Michigan man who pleaded guilty last year to holding a fundraising meeting for Hezbollah in his Dearborn home.
Cases like that make it logical to think about terrorism when debating border security, Kephart said: "We'd be idiotic not to."
But she and other top terrorism experts said stopping potential terrorists from crossing illegally from Mexico should not be the nation's top national security priority.
For one thing, they said, none of the terrorists known to have committed or tried to commit acts of violence on U.S. soil came across the Mexican border.
- The Sept. 11 attackers entered the country at major airports posing as tourists.
- Ahmed Ressam, who aimed to drive an explosives-laden car to Los Angeles International Airport, was caught trying to come through an official border crossing from Canada.
- And an American citizen, Timothy McVeigh, committed the Oklahoma City bombing.
The next attacker is unlikely to sneak across the desert from Mexico, analysts said.
"It may well be a first-generation European, people with visa-exempt passports, with advanced degrees and no record of criminality, who just arrives as a tourist," said Stephen Flynn, senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former member of the National Security Council.
Flynn, Kephart and others said federal priorities should be to close visa loopholes, hire and train more customs inspectors, improve security at official crossings and do more to track some of the 11 million people already living illegally inside America's borders.
"(A fence) would be near the bottom of my list," Flynn said.
Indeed, some experts said a fence could do more harm than good by poisoning American-Mexican relations when tight cooperation is critical for fighting terror.
But a fence "appeals to common sense and common fears," said Peter Andreas, a Brown University political scientist. And that makes it more attractive for politicians than more complicated solutions to the problems exposed by the Sept. 11 attacks.
"A fence becomes a de facto proxy for actually rethinking immigration policy," he said.
by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com
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