Renewed Push for Immigration Reform After NYC Terror Attack

Administration officials urge Congress to implement a merit-based immigration system
December 14, 2017 Updated: January 8, 2018

WASHINGTON—The Trump administration is doubling down on its push to end chain migration after a failed terror attack in New York on Dec. 11.

Chain migration occurs when a person immigrates to the United States and in turn sponsors other relatives to join him or her. Those relatives, in turn, can sponsor people, and so on, indefinitely.

The alleged terrorist, Akayed Ullah, a 27-year-old immigrant from Bangladesh, came to the United States after his uncle won a green card through the diversity visa lottery program. The uncle brought his sister, who in turn brought the then-20-year-old Ullah.

“The lottery system and chain migration—we’re going to end them fast,” President Donald Trump said on Dec. 12, a day after the attack.

At 7:20 a.m. on Dec. 11, Ullah allegedly detonated a homemade bomb he was wearing in a busy Midtown Manhattan underground subway walkway. He sustained burns and wounds to his body, while three other people sustained minor injuries.

Ullah has been charged with five federal crimes, including criminal possession of a weapon, supporting an act of terrorism, and making a terroristic threat, the New York City Police Department announced Dec. 12.

Joon Kim, acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said Ullah allegedly chose the time and location to maximize human casualties.

“[He] came with a hate-filled heart and an evil purpose: to murder as many innocent human beings as he could and to blow himself up in the process—all in support of a vicious terrorist cause,” said Kim, at a news conference on Dec. 12.

Kim said Ullah began researching how to build bombs about a year ago and had been planning this attack for several weeks.

“He also admitted that he had been inspired by ISIS to carry out his attack,” Kim said, adding that Ullah was radicalized online, starting as far back as 2014.

The attack was the second in as many months in New York City, pushing chain migration and the diversity visa lottery to the forefront of the immigration debate.

The earlier attack was carried out by Uzbek national Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov, who mowed down bicyclists with a truck, killing eight and injuring 11 before being shot by police. Saipov won a green card from the diversity visa lottery and had since been the primary contact person for 23 other immigrants, according to comments by Trump on Nov. 1.

Immigrants stand for the U.S. national anthem during a naturalization ceremony in the Great Hall of Ellis Island in New York on Sept. 16, 2016. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Trump’s immigration priorities include replacing family-based (or chain) migration with a merit-based system and to eliminate the diversity visa lottery completely.

Trump said in a statement after the latest attack that extended-family chain migration is “incompatible with national security.”

“The terrible harm that this flawed system inflicts on America’s security and economy has long been clear,” he said.

Family-Based Migration

Francis Cissna, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said America’s immigration system has two principal components: family-based or employment-based.

About 72 percent of the 1 million people who obtained green cards in 2015 came based on a family connection, Cissna said. About 6 percent came based on employment or a job offer. The rest were refugees, asylees, or in other minor categories. “So you can see the immigration system is heavily weighted towards family migration,” Cissna said at a White House press briefing on Dec. 12.

More than 50 percent of family-based migrants are immediate family members of U.S. citizens, such as spouses or children, Cissna said. However, other family-based categories exist that allow extended family members to gain green cards. These include sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, spouses of green card holders, unmarried sons and daughters of green card holders, and brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens and their children.  

“So the suspect in yesterday’s bombing came in under the most extreme, remote possible family-based connection that you could have under current U.S. immigration law—that being the child of the sibling of a U.S. citizen,” Cissna said.

Diversity Visa Lottery

The visa lottery gives out 50,000 green cards each year to participants from countries that had a low immigration rate to the United States in the previous five years.

Cissna said there are several problems with the visa lottery.

“First, because the criteria are so low, either you have no education at all and very little skills, or you have a minimum of education and no skills at all. And because it’s a lottery, pretty much anybody on the planet who is from a qualifying country can take advantage of this,” Cissna said.

Francis Cissna, director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, during a White House press briefing on Dec. 12, 2017. (Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)

The State Department’s Inspector General Office warned in 2003 that the program was rife with fraud and could be exploited by terrorists. The Government Accountability Office echoed the warning in 2007.

“That’s a sad fact of that program. For that reason, regardless of when the person became radicalized, I just want that door shut, because it’s a vulnerability. It’s been recognized for 15 years,” Cissna said.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said more than 1 million people have entered the United States from terror-based countries, making it difficult to identify lone-wolf attackers and those who have been radicalized.

Since 9/11, the Department of Justice has prosecuted more than 500 people for terrorism-related offenses, Sessions said. And preliminary figures suggest that nearly 75 percent of those defendants were foreign-born.

Merit-Based System

Trump has stated his preference for a merit-based immigration system, in which immigrant visas such as green cards are issued based on a points system.

More points are given to people with higher education, younger people, those with better English fluency, and those who have skills that the United States needs. Both Canada and Australia have merit-based systems.

“Today’s attempted mass murder attack in New York City—the second terror attack in New York in the last two months—once again highlights the urgent need for Congress to enact legislative reforms to protect the American people,” Trump said in a statement on Dec. 11.

“America must fix its lax immigration system, which allows far too many dangerous, inadequately vetted people to access our country.”

Cissna said his agency is looking at what it can do without congressional support to reduce the number of family-based categories.

“If you look at temporary visa categories, yes, there’s a lot of things that we can do and that we’re going to do, for example, to increase protections of American workers,” he said.

“In the green card domain, it’s a little harder. Congress has kind of occupied that field a little more densely than it has in the temporary visa area. But there could be … some things that we could do to clarify how these categories are administered.”

Trump has said that Congress needs to address his immigration priorities in any deal that includes an amnesty for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients.

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