9/11 and Terrorist Travel: Staff Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States Page: 4
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In the United States
Three hijackers filed applications for change of status to extend their stays in the United
States and stayed in compliance with U.S. immigration laws through September 2001.
These were among nearly 600,000 new applications received in September 2000 and
were added to a backlog of 3 million others. Two pilots attached the same supporting
financial documents to their immigration benefit applications and were adjudicated by the
same official in the summer of 2001.
The pending but unadjudicated benefits applications assisted two hijackers in persuading
border inspectors to admit them during secondary inspections when they tried to reenter
the United States. The adjudications were premised on the validity of their attendance at
flight school, but in fact this school should not have been certified to accept foreign
nationals. Another hijacker's application allowed him to stay in the United States legally
for an extra six months.
While the applications were pending, one hijacker appeared at an Immigration and
Naturalization Service (INS) office in Florida and requested a longer length of stay for a
companion-possibly another hijacker-that would have enabled the other man to
remain through September, when his own visa expired. The inspector refused that
request, and realizing that the length of stay granted this hijacker during his secondary
inspection was too long, rolled it back to midsummer 2001. The hijacker departed the
United States in July and returned again ten days later, thereby acquiring a new length of
stay that extended beyond September 11, 2001.
On August 23, 2001, the CIA provided biographical identification information about two
of the hijackers to border and law enforcement authorities. The CIA and FBI considered
the case important, but there was no way of knowing whether either hijacker was still in
the country, because a border exit system Congress authorized in 1996 was never
One of the two overstayed his visa by less than six months. Without an exit system in
place at the border tied to law enforcement databases, there was no way to establish with
certainty that he remained in the United States. Thus, there was no risk that his
immigration law violations would be visible to law enforcement, and there was no risk of
immigration enforcement action of any kind.
Immediate response to the attacks
Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, immigration and customs leadership jointly put in
place their agencies' most stringent security precautions, in the process nearly shutting
down our borders; the backed-up traffic at the land borders caused a commercial crisis.
Because resources were already strained, thousands of other enforcement officials in the
National Guard, Border Patrol, and state and local police were needed to help border
authorities reduce wait times for those seeking U.S. entry for tourism or business.
Under Justice Department direction, the FBI and the INS initiated a series of
counterterrorism-related security programs using immigration law violations as a
predicate to interview, detain, and in many cases deport aliens from countries with
possible ties to al Qaeda. Also at the urging of the Justice Department, the State
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Eldridge, Thomas R.; Ginsburg, Susan; Hempel, Walter T., II; Kephart, Janice L. & Moore, Kelly. 9/11 and Terrorist Travel: Staff Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, report, August 21, 2004; Washington D.C.. (https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc1213676/m1/12/?q=cornerstone: accessed July 25, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, UNT Digital Library, https://digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.