In an effort to boost tourism from emerging economies, an executive order from January of this year aimed to increase visa approvals from Brazil. So, the State Department has robustly increased staff presence there and intends to process 11 million non-immigrant visas
in 2012, which would constitute a 19 percent increase from the 9.2 million processed in 2011(1). In one year's time, the average waiting period for a non-immigrant visa in Brazil has gone from 120 days to two days. At this pace, in-person interviews are often neglected. Administration officials estimated tourism revenue generated in July 2012 at $13.7 billion, a three percent increase from July 2011. So clearly, international travel is stimulating the American economy, but hopefully this will not be at the expense of our homeland security. Examining the trajectory of Brazil's legal and illegal immigration patterns might clarify whether or not this policy exposes America to any national security risk.
Who is able to enter Brazil?
As the sixth largest economy in the world and growing, Brazil will obviously be an attractive option to foreign workers. Greg Michener writes in the Christian Science Monitor that Brazil may soon experience another "golden age of immigration." Since President Rousseff's first year in office, "the number of visas issued increased by a full third," the article states. Brazilian economist Ricardo Paes de Barros is currently spearheading efforts from the Office of Strategic Affairs to reduce visa restrictions that would allow people to enter the country more freely. Unfortunately, policies like these could be exploited by America's enemies.
According to the annual State Department's Country Report on Terrorism from 2011, "Brazil's security services were concerned that terrorists could exploit Brazilian territory to support and facilitate terrorist attacks, whether domestically or abroad." It is worth noting that the same report said that there are no known operational cells of al-Qaeda or Hezbollah-related groups in this hemisphere, and that most of the Islamist activity in Brazil is resigned to fundraising efforts for said groups in the Middle East.
However, it is not inconceivable, given both America's and Brazil's sudden loosening of immigration policies, that those who would detriment American interests could take advantage of these windows of opportunity. It is simply reckless to increase accessibility to America from Brazil when Brazil is doing the same thing. A Yemeni Al-Qaeda operative might have trouble getting a visa to enter the U.S., but Brazil is another story. Brazil does not have the same counterterrorism apparatus as the United States. As a growing power, Brazil's efforts to welcome cheap labor could result in unwanted immigration. But aside from potential lone wolf terrorists that will certainly have legal access points considering both countries new immigration policies, there are also greater geopolitical dynamics at play.
The view of the U.S. intelligence community, articulated by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, is that Iran has made clear that it is more willing to "attack U.S. interests in response to real or perceived U.S. actions that threaten the regime." Clapper made these comments in January at an Intelligence Committee hearing in reference to Iran's involvement in the Saudi Ambassador's assassination plot on American soil. Indeed, Iran's presence in Latin America is decidedly troubling. Brazil remained the region's largest exporter to Iran in 2011, at $2.3 billion. Even though this is a negligible percentage of Brazil's total exports, it still illustrates a healthy trade relationship amid U.S. sanctions efforts on Iran. Despite this, U.S. intelligence officials dismiss the importance of a relationship developing between Brazil and Iran. More disconcerting however, is the Iranian-Venezuelan relationship and the vulnerability of the border between these countries. In a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in June entitled "Venezuela's Sanctionable activity," Congressman Gerry Connolly voiced concern over lack of customs enforcement on weekly flights between Caracas and Tehran, saying "it is unclear who or what is being transported, but reports indicated that the flights do carry weapons for terrorists." Venezuela borders Brazil, who is already experiencing difficulties with irregular immigration. Though Brazilian officials do work well with American counterparts to disrupt networks of document forgery, this poses an unequivocal national security risk for the United States.
Lastly, there is one more area of targeted vulnerability. The Tri-Border Area (TBA) of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay serves as one of the western hemispheres largest black markets and is populated by many Lebanese Muslims that fled during the Lebanese civil war in the 1970's. According to a 2009 publication entitled "Film Piracy, Organized Crime and Terrorism" by the RAND Corporation, "Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, al-Qaeda's engineer and mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, made a trip to the TBA to visit members of the Foz do Iguaçu [Brazilian city in the TBA] Muslim community and establish a charitable entity to finance the terrorist organization." The report continues, "Many experts have cited the TBA as the most important center for financing Islamic terrorism outside the Middle East." These warning signs are strengthened by successful attacks on Israeli targets in Argentina in the 1990's, perpetrated as a result of the lawlessness of this area. Additionally, the report exposes the porousness of the borders which makes Brazil entirely susceptible to infiltration.
Let's hope that the United States is less vulnerable than what meets the eye. Either way, requiring an in-person interview and perhaps adding a few days to the wait period to get a visa into the United States from Brazil might be a prudent measure.
(1) Congressional Quarterly, "Administration Reports Progress on Streamlining, Speeding Visa Approvals," Thursday 20 September 2012