The Associated Press
WASHINGTON -- The government tightened its immigration policies Wednesday, promising to use more extensive background checks and better intelligence-sharing to keep out suspected terrorists and their supporters.
Attorney General John Ashcroft asked the State Department to designate 46 terrorist organizations whose members or supporters will not be permitted to enter the country.
"America will not allow terrorists to use our hospitality as a weapon against us," he said. Even people who endorse terrorism or have supported terrorist groups in the past will be kept outside U.S. borders or deported, Ashcroft said.
Ashcroft said he was creating a foreign terrorist tracking task force that will foster better coordination between intelligence, law enforcement and immigration officials.
He promised that the government will delve more deeply into the backgrounds of people seeking visitor visas and will turn the information over to the CIA and FBI for further investigation before issuing permission to enter.
"This is clear authority that strengthens our ability to say to terrorists, you're not welcome in the United States," Ashcroft said.
The Justice Department said 1,087 people have been arrested or detained in the investigations of the Sept. 11 attacks, including 182 charged with immigration violations.
Also Wednesday, federal officials said the government does not know how many foreigners are in the United States illegally after their student visas expired or they never got to the schools where they were to study.
A lax tracking system means neither the State Department nor the Immigration and Naturalization Service can say how widespread the abuse of the student visa program is, agency officials said at a House hearing.
New tracking system
The INS is moving forward with a computer tracking system that would require schools to report any change in a foreign student's status, such as enrollment, change of major or a move to a new address.
Four senators are working together on bills that would place limitations on the student visa system.
The sudden tightening of immigration polices came amid growing criticism contending terrorists can enter the country too easily. The State Department said Wednesday that 15 of the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks applied for visas in Saudi Arabia.
Their names were checked against lists of suspected terrorists, six were interviewed and all were granted visas, officials said.
"The president has directed that agencies cooperate to better identify potential terrorists, to better identify applicants coming to the United States, to better track them, to better know whether they show up at the places they were supposed to show up in terms of schooling, and we're part of that interagency effort," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
The task force will be charged with denying entry to members or representatives of terrorist organizations and immigrants who are suspected of having engaged in terrorist activities or having provided support.
Under new rules, immigration authorities can bar members of political or social groups that endorse terrorist activities from entering the U.S. People who use their prominence to endorse terrorism can also be barred and anyone certified by the attorney general as a threat to national security can be denied entry.
"We will detain, prosecute and deport terrorist aliens who are already inside the national border," Ashcroft said.
He said the task force will be headed by Steven C. McCraw, the deputy assistant director of the intelligence branch of the FBI's Investigative Services Division.
Immigration Commissioner James Ziglar said the task force will provide immigration officials with "real time access to information" that will enable them to keep suspected terrorists out of the country.
"We're not talking about immigration," he said. "We're talking about evil."
Ashcroft said the 46 groups include those linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network, those whose assets have been frozen by presidential order and others who U.S. authorities have determined have engaged in terrorist activities.
All 46 groups have been previously identified by the administration in various orders and reports. The new designations will bring their members and supporters under the provisions of the new anti-terrorism law enacted by Congress.