Michael J. Wildes is a Partner at the Law Firm of Wildes, Weinberg, Grunblatt & Wildes, P.C. Mr. Wildes is a former federal prosecutor with the United States Attorneys Office in Brooklyn, and has testified on Capitol Hill regarding anti-terrorism legislation. Mr. Wildes also served as a national media commentator and received international attention for his successful representation of several terrorist defectors, who provided shocking intelligence to law enforcement authorities. Mr. Wildes was appointed by the President of the United States to the District Appeals Board of the Selective Service System for the State of New Jersey and is currently serving his second term on the City Council in Englewood, New Jersey.
Commentary by Michael J. Wildes
The subject that I was asked to discuss is whether there is a need for international law and policy reformation. This topic is something that, as already indicated, I testified about on Capitol Hill in 1999. After representing scores of interesting individuals, I can say that many have come onto U.S. soil under the guise of credibility or a visa. These individuals have actually conducted themselves in ways that the founding fathers would never have contemplated for visiting: students, clerics and diplomats. I was able to maintain my balance between my advocacy for individual clients and at the same time show our government points of vulnerability that we had. But unfortunately, the government did not heed the call.
In June of 2001, I was invited by Governor Pataki to a press conference to announce New Yorks newly established terrorism commission. When I proposed later that month that my home state New Jersey follow suit, I never imagined the U.S. would later face the most devastating terrorist attack to take place on its soil or against its citizens. As an immigration lawyer, who has dealt with terrorists and defectors, to ensure that proper intelligence information is given to the government, my job utilizes immigration law as a tool to battle this elusive enemy, the terrorist. More than once I have been confronted with scores of circumstances where the government had ample opportunity to expose terrorist conduct and chose not to. I represented individuals, who hailed from countries and regions where they had hard or useful intelligence, but due to the politics of the region our government sought to turn their back. It was a very clear wake up call that the U.S. received on September 11th, and one that it should not have been made to pay.
More than once before September 11th, this effort was considered a war by the press. I doubt anyone then realized just how prescient the use of that term would be. Such was the height of the wall of denial, even amongst those at the forefront of the fight. Ninety days later, two hundred and twenty stories burned and collapsed as this nation looked on in horror. As the smoldering grey air drifted past the Statue of Liberty, I was there that very next day with an ambulance crew, which I volunteered with at Ground Zero. Americans knew now that they lived in a different world, one that was forever changed.
By sunset, few people could deny that America now faced an extraordinary crisis. The U.S. must stand united in support of the President and the Congress and other leaders as we go forward. However, this country must never forget that a war against terrorism cannot be won if it fails to identify and assess its vulnerabilities to protect against future attacks. Prevention is more effective than chasing, negotiating, and punishing terrorists after an assault occurs. While the United States military plays a significant role in this prevention effort, the most powerful weapon to prevent terrorism on U.S. soil is by amendment of the laws.
The hard work of immigrants, my grandparents among them, built America. The greatness of the U.S. is a direct result of the contributions immigrants made then and still make now. Damage inflicted by forces from outside the borders will tear America apart if, as a result, the citizens of this country assault one another from within. Good, innocent citizens can be persecuted by overreaction.
The strength of the U.S. is rooted in the unity of the people comprised of all races, creeds and ethnicities. The evil of any terrorists act does not necessarily reflect his nationality, as illustrated by an American terrorist, Timothy McVeigh. Today, America’s rebellion against terrorism by challenging innocent Muslims in this country only adds to the heartbreak and the growing body count internationally. Yet, in the case of this unforeseen external breach of national security, U.S. immigration law should be applied with a reasonable sliding scale of rights. Individuals, who come here on temporary visas as visitors, have fewer rights than professionals, who have lesser rights than green card holders or ultimately citizens. Potential victims of terrorism must be accorded the highest degree of protection. While I am an advocate for the rights of aliens who make significant contributions to our country, I cannot advocate their right to stand equal to the rights of U.S. citizens in a time of terror.
On September 11th, there was a shift felt in America. Priorities changeddramatically. The United States can no longer indiscriminately hold itself out as a beacon of freedom to the world, if it means compromising safety in arguably the darkest moment in American history. A case on point was theZadvydas vs. Davis case.  In a more recent decision, the U.S. Supreme Court determined it was unconstitutional for illegal aliens to be detained indefinitely or even to be detained more than six months in the United States when no other country would accept them. Doing so, the Court ruled, violated the rights of illegal aliens under the constitutional protections of due process. The fact that the Court’s decisions would permit convicted criminals to go free was not found legally relevant. In effect, the Supreme Court admitted that it was the law of the land for illegal aliens to share the same constitutional protections penned for American citizens. I am sure that no justice would evercontemplate that an illegal alien might inflict the kind of damage that was inflicted on September 11th.
Nevertheless, this war against terrorism began a long time ago. It began in 1979 and for eighteen years thereafter there were attacks against our interests. September 11th was merely the first wake up call and the first suicide bomb of magnitude on U.S. soil. The terrorists held accountable for the ensuing grief were harbored in the U.S. I have seen through the myriad of cases and the contacts that I have developed, how these cells grew over time and became rooted. However, the U.S. cannot resort to extremism to find them or to root them out. But, basic common sense dictates that until the government can ascertain that the U.S. is again reasonably secure, it cannot freely confer the benefits of its rights to aliens who present even the slightest potential threat. Although this would be unfair to the small number of mistakenly suspected individuals who are rejected from the United States; the threat is minimal when compared to the potential slaughter of innocent civilians.
There are no departure controls upon leaving the United States. In 1996 Congress passed requirements such that the U.S. is one of the only countries in the world where an alien can come in, and remain on his or her own word that he or she is actually going to respect the terms of the visa. The intelligence value or the security value of this entry and departure information is vitally significant and was promised by Congress, but never delivered. Mohammed Atta was stopped on several occasions, twice by law enforcement, while on U.S. soil, for driving license violations, and was let go. The U.S. has porous borders for which it is paying the price so dearly.
In employing immigration laws to combat terrorism, the United States cannot be bound by the same blindfold the rest of the justice system uses for fair judgment. It makes a mockery of our Constitution to extend the rights to aliens who may pose a serious threat to the very Americans who fought to protect them. It is very important that America rise to this challenge. The government must balance between the rights to expression of those, who would on many occasions, blatantly disregard the very value of life and our national security.
Contemporaneously, the U.S. must also rise to the challenge of remaining as a moral compass of the world to the extent that it can remind the world and itself that the U.S. is a country built by immigrants. However, the government has to use common sense first and foremost. And immigration law changes are significantly in need of change.
I represented a Saudi diplomat in 1994 who came forward, who lived but a few blocks from this institution. He indicated that he was threatened by another Saudi diplomat (who was actually an intelligence agent) because he was trying to defect. My client had the presence of mind to put a tape recorder under his bed and give the guy his firearm, which he said all Saudi diplomats carry in the New York area, and then came into our office on 53rd and Madison. We met with the FBI privately because we felt that the vital information that he walked out with, which comprised about fourteen thousand documents, was significant. Unfortunately, the FBI and the government because of its strong fellowship with Saudi Arabia at its highest ranks declined to accept the information. The information contained proof of surveillance of Jewish organizations, money laundering throughout the UN, alleged support of terrorists, and all sorts of terrorist activities on U.S. soil.
So I testified in 1999, and sat before Capitol Hill and Congress and talked about that case. I also spoke of a Pakistani Nuclear Scientist who I represented. In the years that have passed since then, I have represented scores of others including a cleric that was challenged, by a Fatwa (religious edict of death) which was issued against my client and of many other cases; heroic and wonderful individuals who very bravely stood out. It is very important that the U.S. cultivate their intelligence and imperative that the U.S. intelligence officials use the information effectively to balance how to combat terrorism and protect U.S. citizens from future attacks.