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Family-based immigration under scrutiny after terror attacks, arrests

Ahmed Aminamin El-Mofty entered the U.S. under so-called chain migration. Authorities say he opened fire on police near Pennsylvania's capitol building on Dec. 22, 2017. (Photo: Dauphin County District Attorney's Office)

An Egyptian immigrant who opened fire on police officers near the Pennsylvania State Capitol last Friday had no known connection to terrorist groups and no evidence has been found indicating he held any specific animosity toward law enforcement, a local prosecutor said Thursday.

Because the suspect, Ahmed El-Mofty, was admitted to the U.S. on an F24 visa as the unmarried child of a lawful permanent resident, the incident has already been seized upon by the Trump administration as evidence that the current immigration system endangers national security, but others say the White House is fueling unwarranted fears.

El-Mofty died in a gunfight with police after authorities say he fired on officers and wounded a state trooper. The Department of Homeland Security has labeled the incident a terrorist attack, but Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico told reporters his motivation is still under investigation.

Emphasizing that DHS is the only organization currently calling the attack terrorism, Marsico said at a news conference Thursday, "You'll have to ask the DHS spokesperson exactly why they believe that."

DHS Acting Press Secretary Tyler Houlton issued a statement one day after the shooting detailing El-Mofty’s immigration history and claiming it underscores the threat posed by so-called chain migration.

Family-based immigration has drawn President Trump’s ire in recent months. As members of Congress work to resolve the status of beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, Trump has indicated that chain migration should not be allowed under any legislation on immigration.

“CHAIN MIGRATION must end now! Some people come in, and they bring their whole family with them, who can be truly evil. NOT ACCEPTABLE!” he tweeted in November.

In his statement, Houlton observed that Zoobia Shahnaz of Long Island, New York was recently indicted for allegedly transferring $85,000 in Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies to support ISIS. Shahnaz entered the country at least six years ago under an F43 visa as the child of a visa holder sponsored by another family member who obtained citizenship.

“These incidents highlight the Trump administration’s concerns with extended family chain migration, Houlton said. “Both chain migration and the diversity visa lottery program have been exploited by terrorists to attack our country.”

Earlier this month, Akayed Ullah, a Bangladeshi native who came to the U.S. in 2011 as the nephew of a U.S. citizen, allegedly attempted to detonate an explosive device near Times Square. Officials said his uncle originally entered the country under the diversity lottery program, which allows up to 50,000 people per year to immigrate to the U.S. based on their country of origin.

The diversity lottery also enabled Sayfullo Saipov to come to the U.S. from Uzbekistan in 2010, seven years before prosecutors say he plowed a rented truck through a crowd in lower Manhattan on Halloween 2017 in the name of ISIS. Eight people were killed in the attack.

The Trump administration has thrown its support behind legislation that would eliminate both of these programs and replace them with a merit-based system that prioritizes skills and employability in immigration decisions. Proponents of the RAISE Act say it would bring people to the U.S. who have a better chance of assimilating, succeeding, and sharing America’s values than those admitted by blood or by chance.

“We are fighting hard for Merit Based immigration, no more Democrat Lottery Systems. We must get MUCH tougher (and smarter),” President Trump tweeted in November.

Supporters of a family-based system argue the president is mischaracterizing how the current program works and they maintain no evidence has been offered that those who enter through family-based immigration or the diversity lottery are more likely to commit terrorist acts than anyone else.

“There is no data to show that such migration is a unique security threat to the United States,” said Sarah Pierce, an associate policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.

Under the current system, citizens can sponsor an unlimited number of spouses, parents and unmarried children under 21. Adult children, siblings, and their spouses and minor children allowed per year are capped. Legal permanent residents can also bring in a limited number of their own spouses and children.

Depending on the country of origin, this process can take years, and in the case of extended family, much longer. In 2015, about 44 percent of all immigrants admitted were immediate relatives of citizens. Other family relationships accounted for 20 percent, compared to 14 percent for employment-based preferences, 14 percent for refugees and asylees, and 5 percent for diversity lottery visas.

According to Kristen De Pena, director of immigration and senior counsel at the Niskanen Center, there are social and economic benefits to reunifying immigrants with their families, even if some are unskilled laborers.

“It has all of its historical roots in conservative values,” she said.

De Pena co-authored a recent report on family-based immigration that assessed its impact and analyzed many of the reforms that have been proposed, finding that most would result in reduced GDP over time. She believes a conversation about merit-based or point-based immigration is worth having and some reforms may be needed, but it must be done “honestly and fact-based.”

“The family-based visa system is as systematic, lawful, and thorough as every other immigrant and nonimmigrant visa processing system in the United States,” the report stated. “That family-based immigrants make up the vast majority of immigration—for now—is a reflection of the sentiment of the country and the laws passed by Congress at work.”

Others see little justification for the current system at all.

“Without the recent attacks the policies would just be stupid,” said Ira Mehlman, media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. “With them, they’re stupid and dangerous.”

The United States should treat residency and citizenship on its soil as the valuable commodity it is, said Andrew Arthur, resident fellow in law and policy at the Center for Immigration Studies, and handing out visas based on family ties fails to do that.

“If given the option, a large number of individuals would choose to immigrate to the U.S. Because of that, the U.S. should be selective in who it gives lawful permanent residence,” he said.

Some say those who already have family in the U.S. will have a support system in place that makes it easier to assimilate and thrive.

“Family reunification has been the cornerstone of the U.S. immigration system for decades, and has been beneficial not only to the immigrants themselves but also for the country generally,” Pierce said.

Eskinder Negash, acting president and CEO of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, said critics often blur the lines between different forms of immigration, but the country has a history of embracing refugees and immigrants.

“We believe family-based immigration is good for the country,” Negash said. “It is based on our value system, so it’s like throwing the baby with the bathwater…. A couple of bad apples should not destroy the foundation of our immigration policy or our refugee policy.”

Opponents of chain migration acknowledge that close-knit family members may be well-positioned to assimilate, but they emphasize that the current system extends much further to more tenuous branches of the family tree.

“That’s certainly true with respect to a nuclear family…. Chain migration, however, allows petitioners to sponsor individuals with whom they have no relationship or who they never have met,” Arthur said.

In the case of Ullah or Shahnaz, their personal relationships with the relatives who sponsored their admission may never have come up in the application process.

“There’s no guarantee that that aunt or uncle who petitioned for those individuals ever met them…,” Arthur said. “The only question is whether the legal relationship exists, not whether an emotional relationship exists between the parties.”

Mehlman argued the desire to keep families together that may have driven policy decades ago is less imperative today due to technology and the ease of transportation.

“It’s not like it was 100 years ago when you get on the boat, you wave goodbye and that was the last you were ever going to see of those people,” he said.

One common characteristic in several recent foreign-born terror suspects is that they appear to have been radicalized after entering the country.

“The perpetrators were likely radicalized from within the United States and were not originally exploiting the immigration system to attack the country,” Pierce said, noting that Ullah and El-Mofty went through the same security vetting by immigration officials as all applicants before being granted citizenship.

Arthur, however, made the case that those with the skills and values to succeed in America would be less susceptible to such radicalization once here.

“Those individuals would have some sort of economic tie to this country, would be contributing members of the society, and quite frankly are logically less likely to become radicalized and decide to go follow some internet propaganda website to commit an act against the United States,” he said.

According to De Pena, background checks can be improved but nothing can guarantee that someone admitted to the country for any reason will never become radicalized. Focusing on that risk obscures the benefits of immigration.

“We need immigrants to ensure that we continue to be economically and socially competitive in the global market,” she said.

Some critics of the Trump administration’s position question why a few tragic incidents necessitate reexamining the entire immigration system when the threat of terrorist attacks by foreign-born immigrants remains, as De Pena put it, “infinitesimally small.”

Alex Nowrasteh of the libertarian Cato Institute calculated that only 16 people have been killed in such attacks since 1975, and several of those were Argentinian tourists. By his count, the chance of an American citizen being killed in a terrorist attack by a chain migrant or someone who entered through the diversity lottery is, at most, 1 in 1.2 billion per year. The chance of being killed in a normal homicide is at least 80,000 times greater.

Regardless, Mehlman insisted chain migration is fundamentally unfair to millions of qualified individuals abroad who have something valuable to contribute to American society but no familial connections to move them to the front of the line. As a blueprint for rectifying the situation, he pointed to the findings of the Jordan Commission in 1995 that were supported at the time by President Bill Clinton, which recommended a reduction in overall immigration and limiting visa preferences to a citizen’s spouse and minor children.

“We just take people based on who they might be related to,” Mehlman said. “In any other area of law that might be considered nepotism and likely outlawed.”

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