If the Immigration and Naturalization Service had its way, we'd all just shut up about Mohamed Atta's January 10 entry into the United States through Miami International Airport. In response to last week's New Times story about Atta's questionable return to the country, the INS issued a statement on October 18 insisting it had done nothing wrong in the terrorist's case. "Published reports that immigration officers improperly allowed [Atta] to enter the United States are factually incorrect," unnamed officials wrote. The truth, according to the INS, was that Atta had a "valid visitor's visa" and a "pending legal request to change status from a visitor to a student."
Sounds reasonable enough -- except it's not really true. Atta, by law, shouldn't have been admitted to the country on January 10. INS allowed in the Egyptian national because of lenient, in-house policies that favor facilitation of travel and customer service over enforcement.
We reported last week that MIA inspectors had detained Atta and could have deported him because he was a student trying to enter the country on a tourist visa. Two days later the Miami Herald followed our story with a front-page article, and the news spread to the rest of the country on wire services, CNN, and Fox News. INS spokesman Russ Bergeron, this past Saturday, told the Washington Post that Atta had done "everything right" to get into the country. The INS version of events:
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Atta came to the United States on a tourist visa in July 2000. He enrolled in a Florida flight school and, in September 2000, applied with INS to become a legal student. The change-of-status request automatically extended his legal stay -- he was supposed to leave the country by December 2, 2000 -- until the immigration service decided whether to grant it. Atta left for Spain in early January; when he tried to return to the United States with the expired tourist's visa, he was stopped and further investigated. (New Times has learned that the INS watch commander on duty that day was veteran supervisory inspector Ramon Rosario, who declined comment). It was determined that since Atta had legally requested a change of status to student, he could return to the United States on his old tourist visa.
But Atta, we've discovered, didn't do everything right. When he left the country in January, he failed to apply for an I-512 form -- authorization to leave the country and return. By law he was supposed to put in writing the reason he was leaving and for how long he would be gone. Because he never received authorization to travel to Spain, his change-of-status application should have been voided as soon he left the United States, according to federal law. Atta had, in effect, abandoned the process. Therefore, he needed to obtain a student visa from the State Department before re-entering the country. He didn't do that, but MIA inspectors cut him a break anyway.
Even Bergeron, the INS spokesman, concedes that, had an inspector followed the "law to the absolute letter," Atta wouldn't have been admitted on January 10. But Bergeron says there is flexibility in INS rules and regulations that gives the inspector "discretion" in such situations. "The reality is, it's a complex body of law," says Bergeron. "We try to administer the law in a realistic way, and inspectors have discretionary authority. There are some inspectors who are law-enforcement-minded and believe the law should be followed to the absolute letter. There are others who believe that inspectors should facilitate travel and commerce. The problem is trying to strike a balance."
As last week's New Times story showed, the immigration service - under pressure from the airline industry and other special interests -- routinely errs on the side of facilitation. And that's why Atta -- who is believed to have been the ringleader of the September 11 terrorists and flew the first plane into the World Trade Center -- was allowed back into the United States.