Days after Senate Democrats unveiled a 26-page immigration reform proposal in response to Arizona's controversial new crackdown on illegal immigrants, the arrest of a naturalized U.S. citizen from Pakistan in the failed New York City attack appears certain to renew scrutiny on how the U.S. polices its borders. While the current debate has focused on the nation's 12 million undocumented residents, the 30-year-old Pakistani native apparently had all his papers in order.
"We're cracking down on Mexican busboys and we would much rather they go after would-be terrorists," said Angela Maria Kelley, head of immigration policy and advocacy at the liberal Center for American Progress. "We need to find a way to make ourselves secure and revamp our immigration system, but we can't fool ourselves that revamping the immigration system will make us safe."
"We don't know enough about this case yet to say whether he slipped through the cracks," said Kevin McLaughlin, a spokesman for Sen. John Cornyn, the senior Republican on the subcommittee dealing with immigration and border security. "There will have to be a top-to-bottom review to see how he got naturalized and whether there were any acts prior to obtaining citizenship."
Calls to Sen. Charles Schumer, the New York Democrat who chairs that panel, were not returned.
Details are still emerging, but Shahzad appears to have followed all the rules on his way to a naturalization ceremony in Bridgeport, Conn., on April 17, 2009.
According to published reports, the Karachi-born Shahzad was granted an F-1 student visa in December 1998. A law enforcement official told The Wall Street Journal that there was "no derogatory information" on Shahzad in any database. After attending Southeastern University in Washington, D.C., he transferred in 2000 to the University of Bridgeport, earning a B.A. in computer science and engineering.
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The Journal, citing an unnamed source, reported that Shahzad was granted an H-1B visa for skilled "specialty occupation" workers in April 2002. He stayed in the U.S. for three years on that visa while he earned an M.B.A. The newspaper said it was not clear what company sponsored his visa, as would be required under immigration laws.
Shahzad reported on Oct. 20, 2008, that he had married Huma Asif Mian, a U.S. citizen. He became naturalized as a U.S. citizen six months later, taking an oath of allegiance in which he said he would "absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen."
The oath says nothing about nonstate actors such as al-Qaida or the militant group Jaish-e-Muhammad, which is linked to a mosque in a Karachi suburb where Pakistani authorities arrested a man in connection with the Times Square bombing.
A 'Comprehensive' Background Check
Christopher Bentley, a spokesman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), would not comment on Shahzad's case but said generally that all immigrants seeking permanent residency and later citizenship undergo routine background screening. He said the FBI does a name check and looks for any criminal records.
"They run a very detailed look into a person's background for anything that would preclude them from getting citizenship," he said. "They also look at associates who may be connected with a criminal background. It's a very comprehensive look."
Once a person passes that initial screening, the pathway to citizenship includes being able to speak English and pass a test about U.S. government and history.
In addition, the law stipulates that any candidate for citizenship must "be a person of good moral character, attached to the principles of the Constitution of the United States, and well disposed to the good order and happiness of the United States during all relevant periods under the law."
Soon after Shahzad took that oath and got his U.S. passport -- and no longer had to pass muster in the eyes of U.S. immigration and law enforcement officials -- he reportedly traveled to Peshawar. According to the criminal complaint filed today, Shahzad admitted to undergoing bomb-making training in Waziristan, a hotbed of extremists not far from the Afghanistan border. He returned in February after a five-month stay in his native country. According to The New York Times, he used two Pakistani passports and one U.S. passport in his travels.
Pakistanis who become U.S. citizens are allowed to maintain dual nationality.
It is not clear if Shahzad is connected to the Pakistani Taliban, which has posted three videos claiming responsibility for the failed bombing.
If he did train for the bungled attack on 45th Street, it was apparently news to the U.S.authorities. A law enforcement official told the Associated Press that Shahzad was not known to the U.S. intelligence community before Saturday.
Attorney General Eric Holder had no comment at a news conference Tuesday when asked if Shahzad moved to the U.S. with the intent to carry out a terrorist attack at a future date.
Former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff told AOL News that the key to detecting bad intentions "depends on when he became radicalized and whether he had any past negative behavior." He added that authorities must make an "individualized determination based on all the facts."
Without a known affiliation with an extremist group, operatives like Shahzad "fly below the radar screen and are impossible to identify unless they do something different like make a phone call to a known Taliban or al-Qaida operative overseas," Roger Cressey, a counterterrorism expert in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, told AOL News. "Unless there is credible and accurate information to suspect somebody of being involved in nefarious activity, the default can't be 'we're going to deny [legal status] just because you're from Pakistan.' "
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, revelations about how the hijackers entered the United States led to new restrictions. Under a new National Security Entry-Exit Registration System adopted in 2002, all noncitizens over the age of 16 from predominantly Muslim countries -- including Pakistan -- as well as North Korea were required to register and be fingerprinted.
"If he only became a citizen a year ago, the kinds of strengthened protections and security clearances that were put in place after 2001 included much stronger review in cases of naturalization applicants, and he would have been subject to all of those reviews," Migration Policy Institute Senior Fellow Doris Meissner, former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service under the Clinton administration, told AOL News.
Meissner noted that Shahzad would have been cleared twice in post-9/11 background checks before becoming a citizen. "These people who are real professionals at this know doggone well that the last thing they want is to come into contact with any law enforcement officials. They are 'clean' operatives," she said. "Assuming this was properly done, what it tells you is that there are people in the United States who we know now in other cases become radicalized and can try to do us harm. You can't entirely read into the future what somebody might do if you have no history of that person."
In 2000, before the terrorist attacks, the annual number of permanent resident aliens, or "green card" holders, admitted annually peaked at about 1.5 million, according James Nafziger, who teaches immigration law at Willamette University in Salem, Ore. Because of restrictions imposed after 9/11, that number dropped to fewer than 1 million each year. While the economy usually explains fluctuations in migration, anti-terrorist regulations deterred many from seeking visas to live here.
"The American public began to forget our traditional hospitality to strangers," Nafziger wrote.
If suspicions began to ease, Saturday's failed attack -- the 11th in New York since 9/11 -- has already re-energized those on the right, who complain the Obama administration isn't tough enough on immigration. House Republican Whip Eric Cantor on Tuesday accused the White House of complacency amid "warning signs" of the failed attacks on an airliner on Christmas Day and in Times Square.
The attack "indicates that the screening process for admitting and naturalizing immigrants is grossly inadequate," said Ira Mehlman of the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform. "Even more importantly, it ought to stop any discussion of amnesty for millions of illegal aliens dead in its tracks. If USCIS cannot adequately screen applicants at its current workload, it renders the promise of background checks on amnesty applicants utterly absurd. There is simply no way they would be able to vet millions of people -- many of whom may be using false identities -- and pick out the run-of-the-mill illegal alien from the ones who are truly dangerous."
But David Schanzer, a Duke University terrorism expert who served as chief Democratic counsel on the House Homeland Security Committee from 2003 to 2005, said it is unclear when Shahzad adopted his presumably radical views and "might have been as peaceful and patriotic as the guy living next door."
He warned against using the attack as an excuse to clamp down on student and work visas from Pakistan and other Muslim countries, noting many of his best students are in the U.S. on foreign visas.
"The worst time to make policy is in direct response to any specific event," he said. "We have to take a breath and then make adjustments where necessary."