Trump team immigration push undercut by NY attack facts, critics say

Story highlights

  • According to authorities, the suspect began radicalization three years after he came to the US
  • The administration has pointed to his green card as evidence of the need to restrict those immigration avenues

Washington (CNN)As the Trump administration presses the notion that recent terrorist attacks justify significant changes in the legal immigration system, critics say the facts of those attacks undercut their own argument.

President Donald Trump and administration officials have explicitly pointed to how Akayed Ullah, the suspect in Monday's attempted terrorist attack in New York City, was granted a green card in the US as evidence for their push to restrict those immigration avenues.
But according to charging documents for Ullah, federal authorities traced the beginning of his radicalization to "at least approximately 2014" -- three years after he came to the United States.
    The Department of Homeland Security on Monday confirmed that Ullah came with his parents to the US as the child of a sibling of a US citizen, on a so-called nephew visa, in 2011. They noted that his uncle, now a US citizen, originally came on a diversity lottery visa, a program that benefits up to 50,000 people per year from countries with lower levels of immigration to the US and is the same program that brought the suspect in a Halloween New York terrorist attack to the US.
    The administration has used those connections to argue that Congress should drastically cut family-based immigration, also called "chain migration," and the diversity lottery program.
    But when pressed to explain the connection to terrorism from the White House podium on Tuesday, Director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services Lee Francis Cissna could cite olnly hypothetical risk.
    "If you have a system that doesn't select at all or is barely selecting anybody, we don't know what we're going to get," Cissna told reporters at the daily briefing. "With respect to the individual in yesterday's attempt, I would say I don't know, I don't have a command of the facts relating to the investigation as to whether or if he was ever radicalized."
    Supporters of such an idea say that any criminal or terrorist who could have been denied entry to the US means a preventible crime.
    "The Department of Homeland Security will use every legal option available to keep Americans safe," DHS spokesman Tyler Houlton said in a statement. "This multi-pronged approach is not an either-or solution to our national security challenges. The fact remains that both of these terrorists entered the country using a deeply flawed visa lottery program and chain migration. Both programs are outdated and need to be replaced with a merit based immigration system to protect the homeland."
    But given that Ullah began his radicalization in the US years after immigrating, and that the previous New York attacker, Sayfullo Saipov, was also radicalized in the US, according to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, critics are accusing the administration of disingenuously pushing its aggressive immigration agenda.
    Reacting to Cissna's turn at the podium, Gregory Chen, director of government relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, called it "baldly transparent" that the administration could not make a sufficient connection between the immigration programs it is targeting and terrorism.
    "They are just using this as a way to scapegoat and attack the immigration system, this particular incident, when there's no demonstrated connection between cutting back on the family-based system and protecting our national security," Chen said. "That was so transparent from that (briefing)."
    Experts say family-based migration achieves the goals of assimilation that the administration says it wants, by connecting individuals from abroad with family members already settled in the US.
    All immigrants to the US are screened for security risks, which Cissna acknowledged on Tuesday. Although diversity lottery winners are chosen at random and family-based migrants are allowed in based on their relatives, all of them must pass eligibility checks by the US and be interviewed before they can receive visas.
    Critics argue that the administration is ignoring the threat of online radicalization by terror groups in its pursuit of dramatic cuts to the legal immigration system.
    "It's worse than not effective, it's counterproductive," said Michael Breen, president and CEO of the Truman Center and Truman National Security Project, whose membership includes former national security officials and veterans of the Obama and Clinton administrations.
    Breen said that responding effectively to terrorist ideologies requires creating a "sense of national unity," and that to be "opportunistic" with an agenda instead could lead to more radicalization.
    "The more we alienate people, the more difficult it is to prevent radicalization," Breen said. "It is not good policy to categorize large parts of your population as outside the national identity."