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Explaining Mohamed Atta's M-1 Approval: A Very Embarrassed INS and Angry Politicians
by Jose Latour

Sometimes, no matter what you say, or HOW you say it, there is nothing you can do to escape public ridicule.

Such would seem to be the case of last week's staggering public revelation that on the six month anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks, the flight school that unwittingly trained two of the airplane hijackers received "B" to "M-1" change of status approvals on behalf of Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi. I read about the incident, as you can imagine, in a variety of places but gathered the bulk of the material for today's column from the Miami Herald.

How, President Bush and the rest of America -- and the world -- asked, is this possible? The approval notice was postmarked March 5, 2002, but according to Russ Bergeron, INS spokesman:

"The important thing to recognize is the decisions to change their status were made...before September 11, and at the time there was no information made available to INS regarding these people and their link to terrorism."

Mr. Bergeron offered the following points in clarification:

  • This was the result of a backlog in data entry of visa notifications [no surprise to our readers...]

  • Though the applications were approved last summer (as in 2001!), the delay meant the mailing to the school didn't happen until March 5th, 2002.

  • The data entry and mailing was done NOT by INS but by an outside contractor, Affiliated Computer Services.

Mr. Bergeron further explained that Atta and al-Shehhi had had their notices of approval mailed out weeks before September 11. According to INS records obtained by the Herald, Atta's COS was approved on July 17, 2001 while al-Shehhi's was approved on August 9, 2001. The best part of that revelation: Huffman Aviation, the flight training center, was training valid M-1 students. Can you imagine what would be happening to the poor folks at Huffman if we learned today that, due to technicalities, the scumbags were technically not in M-1 status at the time they began flight training? Even if such were the case, the events of September 11th would be no more the fault of the folks at Huffman than they were the fault of the INS folks who approved the COS, the fault of the Vice Consul who issued these men their tourist visas, or the flight attendant who served them their orange juice on their fateful flights over to America.

September 11th was their fault and theirs alone.

To the world, this was an eyebrow raising moment -- a brief glimpse into the stark reality of INS delays and a bureaucracy unimaginable to most Americans. To those of us struggling to get INS the funding and staffing it needs, it is just another example of an overwhelmed federal agency, tasked to move mountains with a couple of shovels and a Congress that really just doesn't care a whole lot about anything except getting re-elected.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bush has ordered a "probe" after being "very displeased" about the letters. Attorney General Ashcroft is "extremely concerned and furious." You know what they are?

Embarrassed. So now we'll spend a couple of million of OUR tax dollars investigating the obvious and conclude the OBVIOUS:

  1. The INS is overworked and understaffed.

  2. Federal interagency information sharing systems are woefully inadequate given today's technological resources.

Mr. President, America, and World, here's your FREE answer. All this happened because "immigration" is a "Size XXXX" issue in this country and the U.S. Congress is giving the agency in charge of said issue a "Petite" budget. It really is that simple. You want our airports safe? Deploy the national guard. Great! That worked! You want an immigration system that works efficiently? Give them the resources to let them hire and train the people they need to meet the real-world demands that this, the most coveted of nations, faces on a daily basis. Till then, ease up on the INS and quitcherbitchin. Cheap shots at the INS like those by the "astonished" Democrat John Conyers might impress the heck out of the folks back home but those of us who know what's really going on just chuckle, and all we do is respect you a little less than we did before, Rep. Conyers.

I suppose one must try and look at the bright side and, as a pilot who well understands the terrible impact of September 11th on general aviation, I am glad that Huffman Aviation is not having to spend a small fortune defending itself from an unjust position as scapegoat.

I guess that's all we have to take home on this one.

About The Author

Jose Latour is the founding partner of Latour & Lleras, P.A., a Gainesville, Florida based business immigration practice working primarily with the IT industry and foreign investors. JELPA is an A/V rated firm whose web site,, is one of the Internet’s most visited immigration sites. The firm was named “ONE OF AMERICA’S TOP TEN INTERNET/VIRTUAL COMPANIES” in the 1999 Inc. Magazine and Cisco Systems “Growing with Technology Awards.” Mr. Latour served as a U.S. Diplomatic and Consular Officer in Mexico and Africa before entering private practice and today divides his time between his law practice, writing, flying, and his music.