WASHINGTON -- On a warm evening in May, Faisal Shahzad caught hundreds of people in New York City's Times Square by surprise.
His attempt to blow up the popular tourist attraction via a crude car bomb also caught law enforcement off guard.
But perhaps the biggest surprise was that Shahzad had been taking advantage of the U.S. immigration system for years. By May 2010, the Pakistani-born terrorist was a naturalized U.S. citizen.
So, how did he do it?
"Initially he was admitted as a foreign student even though he was a lackluster student at best in Pakistan," explained Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. "Then he got a supposed hi-tech worker visa. Then he married someone in the U.S., so he finagled a green card, which is to say permanent status. Then, once he had his green card, citizenship was pretty much guaranteed."
A Flawed System
Citizenship is perhaps the highest gift the U.S. can give a person. However, the current system often bestows that gift on terrorists, while at the same time making it extremely difficult for ordinary people to gain legal entry.
Sheila Roddy has been working with the system for years. For her, it's been a nightmare. Roddy came from Scotland to the U.S. for love, but soon had to fight her way out of an abusive marriage. After that, trying to obtain citizenship for herself and her daughter Erin proved both expensive and time-consuming.
"In all, it was eight years of waiting, of filling out forms, of saving up to be able to afford to send the forms away -- of doing without because we were saving up," Roddy explained.
In the meantime, Erin missed going to college because she couldn't qualify to apply for financial aid and work permit problems made it difficult for her to find a job.
"John" is a political refugee who just became a citizen after a 10-year fight. For him, the heartache of leaving his homeland was replaced by another pain -- becoming a U.S. citizen. He spent tens of thousands of dollars in the process.
"We had to fill thousands and thousands of forms," he said. "I mean, my file is this thick. It's one application after another after another."
"It's shameful," Dr. James Carafano said. Carafano is the director for the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation. "The first thing that people see of America is when they send their paperwork in and the first thing they see is this bureaucratic mess.
It's no secret that becoming a U.S. citizen often takes years, mountains of paperwork, and countless fees, to say nothing of legal help if you're confused.
"If you talk to legal immigrants, the one thing they will tell you across the board is that they made at least one administrative error when applying and had to basically start from scratch," said Alex Nowrasteh, policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
Experts like Krikorian say U.S. immigration law rivals the tax code in its complexity. That explains why people like Sheila, Erin, and "John" struggle so much. It also helps to understand why terrorists are able to leverage the system to their advantage.
"You set up the systems to catch things, but the enemy is not stupid," Carafano said. "The enemy is gaming the system everyday. They're sending people through customs to see what happens. They're having people apply to visas to see what happens."
"Citizenship is the brass ring for bad guys," Krikorian said. "Osama bin Laden has said repeatedly that trying to get U.S. citizens in their network is essential because they can come and go without any problems."
Loopholes for Terror
Here are just some of the loopholes that terrorists take advantage of:
Marriage -- sham or otherwise is a tried-and-true formula for terrorists ranging from Shahzad to World Trade Center bomber El Sayyid Nosair. That's because the U.S. approves most petitions to bring foreign spouses over, even couples who don't share a common language.
Another loophole comes in the form of so-called diversity visas. These are designed to open doors for people from countries that don't have the opportunity to send a lot of immigrants. But Andrew McCarthy, author of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America, has found they often open the door for terrorists.
"We actually invite people into our country through State Department visas, special visa programs, that are the source of a lot of the terrorism that we face," he explained.
A third loophole is the absence of biometric exit checks. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has not implemented these to match those leaving the country with those who have entered.
"If you don't know who's checked out, you don't know who's still here," Krikorian explained. "You don't know who's overstayed visas and there doesn't seem to be any urgency about it."
CBN News asked U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services about these loopholes, but the agency refused an on-camera interview. Instead, Press Secretary Christopher Bentley provided a general statement in answer to CBN News questions, noting that "national security is the bedrock of our work.part of that process is a very thorough series of background security checks along with detailed personal interviews."
The Immigration Debate
So what are the chances that security and streamlining will become part of the immigration reform debate? There is a growing consensus, even among evangelicals, that more must be done to secure our borders.
But many observers also believe that reform will do little to simplify the process and that. In fact, it will likely complicate it.
That's bad news for Sheila, Erin, and countless others who hope and wait for that little piece of paper that ensure their citizenship.
"We know it's coming soon because we waited a long time," Erin said. "It's going to be a day of freedom. There's going to be a whole lot of weight lifted off our shoulders, literally. I think we're going to throw a very big party."
*Originally published July 6, 2010.