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NiLP Commentary

The New York Terrorist Attack, the Immigration Debate and ISIS

By Angelo Falcón

The horrific terrorist attack that killed eight and injured 12 prematurely set off a dramatic debate over immigration and the value of "diversity." While the Democrats were trying to reassure New Yorkers about their safety, Trump skipped that part and went straight into a partisan and personal attack on the State Department-administered "Diversity Visa Lottery Program." Calling for its termination, it was interesting that at a Cabinet meeting making this announcement he couldn't even correctly name the program, initially calling it the "Diversary" program. The one definition of "diversary" that I could find was, "Serving or tending to divert," which we all know by now is Trump's standard M.O.

While there are certainly valid reasons to reassess the Diversity Visa Lottery Program, it doesn't make sense to give the impression that it is a free-for-all lottery that is a major funnel for terrorists. Those admitted to this program, about 50,000 a year, are vetted, including through a personal interview. They are also required to have completed at least a high school education or at least two years of work experience in an occupation requiring at least two other years of training or experience. They must also satisfy general immigration requirements, such as means of support, no criminal background, and good health.

Sayfullo Habibullaevich Saipov, who committed the New York Home Depot truck killings, came to this country seven years ago through this Diversity Visa Lottery from Uzbekistan. He, it seems, was radicalized in the United States, but the nature of this radicalization and his potential ties to other ISIS agents and sympathizers are now being investigated to see if he is a "lone terrorist" or not. In 2002 Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, an Egyptian immigrant who came into the country in 1992 and gained legal residency in 1997 through his wife's Diversity Visa, killed two people and injured four others at Los Angeles International Airport. Both were in this country for some time before committing their murders. While Hesham Mohamed Hadayet was determined to be a "lone terrorist," for Sayfullo Habibullaevich Saipo this is still to be determined as well as whether or not the Diversity Visa Lottery was used by ISIS to plant him in the United States in the first place.

The senselessness of the New York terrorist attack is made all the more senseless by the fact that of the 8 persons murdered, 6 were not even U. S. citizens. The five Argentinians and one Belgian were tourists. What was Sayfullo Habibullaevich Saipov's rationale for picking the location of his heinous act besides that it was on Halloween? By its randomness, it revealed a weakening of ISIS strategy of trying to instill terror in New Yorkers. It was a senseless terror put to an end by the steady aim of heroic Police Officer Ryan Nash, to whom and his fellow officers we are deeply grateful.

In considering the Diversity Visa Lottery Program's contribution to the entry of terrorists, it is important to note in assessing the program that about a million people have been admitted through it, and two have committed terrorist acts after being in the country for some years. It is also important to acknowledge that this part of the immigration system has sought to address the historical problem of a racially discriminatory immigration history in the United States. Should the Diversity Visa Lottery be eliminated and replaced with a merit-based system, should its vetting process be strengthened, or should certain countries with historically high terrorist activity, like Uzbekistan, be banned from participation?

But the question about this one program begs the broader question of what to do with an obviously dysfunctional immigration system. How to balance border security with a humanitarian immigration admissions process that adequately protects the rights of all entrants. How do we balance the need for higher and less skilled workers that can both support our high tech industries as well as our agricultural and other lower paying sectors? What do we do with the millions who are already in the country illegally? Current political realities point to a lack of will to address these issues seriously, something that simplistically linking immigration with terrorism doesn't help.

This brings us back to Trump's solution to terrorism being eliminating this Diversity Visa Lottery, keeping all Muslins out, and blaming the Democrats (even though his Republicans are in charge). My question is why we are still dealing with ISIS at all. What happened to Trump's promise in which he said that as President, "I would bomb the shit out of them. I'd just bomb those suckers. I'd blow up the pipes, I'd blow up the refineries, I'd blow up every single inch --- there would be nothing left." Upon becoming President, Trump told one of his campaign rallies, that "We are going to convey my top generals and give them a simple instruction. They will have 30 days to submit to the Oval Office a plan for soundly and quickly defeating ISIS. We have no choice." I think it's been more than 30 days since he took office.

We can forever debate immigration lotteries, the value of diversity, whether the Democrats or the Republicans are to blame. The bottom line is, Why hasn't Trump eliminated ISIS as he promised to do? Without answering that specific question, all we are engaged in is a lot of "diversary."

Angelo Falcón is President of the National Institute for Latino Policy (NiLP). He can be reached at afalcon@latinopolicy.org.