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U.S. Should Not Waver on U.K. Visa Policy

May 18, 2007

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is justifiably concerned that British-Pakistani Islamists pose a unique threat to the security of the United States. Two British-Pakistani Muslims were part of the July 2005 attack on the London transit system—the only Islamist terror attack in the West that was entirely homegrown. Post-attack investigations unearthed a terrorist training camp operated in part by British Pakistanis in the English county of Somerset. And, in a separate case, British Muslims of Pakistani descent constituted four out of the five men convicted last month of conspiring in 2003 to carry out terrorist acts in Britain.

Secretary Chertoff's fear is that a British-born extremist could easily enter the United States due to the visa waiver agreement that allows open travel between the two countries. The New York Times reported that Chertoff was recently in discussion with the British Foreign Office about ending this waiver for British citizens of Pakistani origin. The Guardian subsequently reported that both governments deny that the discussions played out in that exact manner. The issue is nonetheless a real one. It is the operational manifestation of a broader debate about whether American safety is best served through unilateral security measures or through cooperation with other states. The efficacy and ethics of tinkering with visa waivers is open to serious question.

Practically speaking, the trouble lies in the fact that terrorists can be quite adaptive. Unable to smuggle guns or knives onto planes, the 9/11 hijackers adjusted their weaponry to the precise limits of airline security. One can imagine that while U.S. immigration officials are busy reviewing visa applications from British Pakistanis, an extremist group could find an agent of a different ethnicity to enter from any one of the 27 countries with which the United States has a visa waiver policy, including Britain itself. The proposed restriction would still have admitted one of the British men convicted in last month’s trial and two of the July 7 bombers.

Despite these shortcomings, the United States may choose to restrict British Pakistani access anyway, under the theory that an imperfect deterrent is better than none at all and that they are the group likeliest to internally produce anti-Western terrorists. The United States also has the option of scrapping the United Kingdom visa waiver altogether.

Both paths are troubling. How would such a restriction on an international minority be enforced—a sign posted on travel websites and agencies saying All British-born Muslims of Pakistani ancestry MUST apply for a visa to enter the United States? It is unreasonable to believe that terrorists would voluntarily identify themselves as members of a restricted group, meaning that U.S. Customs would have to identify the ethnicity and religion of every British visitor who might be both Pakistani and Muslim. The manpower required to mount such investigations would be enormous, not to mention the invasiveness of delving into the personal histories of all prospective British travelers with South Asian surnames.

Ending visa waivers for the United Kingdom altogether at least has the appearance of consistency on its side, but the policy would invoke the ire of the British government and reduce the billions of dollars that British visitors spend in America each year. Either path would crush whatever hope the United States has of enlisting the British Pakistani community as friends and allies.

From an ethical perspective, the decision that the Bush Administration and its successors face is much larger than whether or not to tighten border entry requirements for a certain ethnicity from a certain country. It is a question of whether or not American security lies in unilateralism or in multilateral cooperation. As such, a discussion of closing the visa-waiver “loophole” for a small fraction of visitors does a disservice to the nation because it represents a half-measure.

Debate on this issue must be public and the terms clear: The choice is between continuing to engage in international partnerships at a cost to domestic security, or redefining the way the United States views people in visa waiver countries. Are they assets to be leveraged, or security liabilities to be contained? If the United States chooses the latter, the benefit is direct responsibility for more of its security. The cost will come down the line when, after years of probing the family history and personal associations of every visiting British scholar, every vacationing French family, and every Italian cousin, Americans will no longer be able to ask why their government encounters so much resistance promoting American values abroad.

There is no doubt that if the United States maintains its traditional visa waiver relationships, a British Pakistani Muslim could enter the country and commit a terrible act. All counterterrorism is a balance of risks and costs. If Secretary Chertoff and his colleagues truly believe that the best protection against Western-born Islamists is to constrict U.S. borders, then it serves no useful purpose to slow-roll the policy one ethnicity and country at a time.

The cost of this would be high: the erosion of the value of openness—intellectual, financial, and personal—that the United States champions against Islamism and other anti-liberal ethics. Backtracking on values, straining relations with allies, and alienating communities that already doubt whether the United States is a force for good in the world are not policies that the United States can afford.

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