Cultural Continuity


There are some people I’ve talked to who just can’t understand what the big deal is about letting illegal immigrants into the country. “What difference does it make?” they ask.

An informal money-exchange network known as “hawala’’ — a centuries-old system that operates outside conventional banking networks — is at the center of the investigation into three Pakistanis arrested Thursday in Massachusetts and Maine with alleged ties to the suspect in the failed Times Square bomb plot, law enforcement officials said yesterday.

In a sense, they’re right. Ultimately, it makes no difference who populates this chunk of land called the United States. It doesn’t matter what race they are, it doesn’t matter what their religion is, or what language they speak.

The men, who were detained on immigration charges after several raids across the Northeast, were described by government officials as having funneled money to Pakistani-born Faisal Shahzad, who is in federal custody for trying to set off a car bomb earlier this month. The three men are being investigated for possibly using the hawala system to provide money that Shahzad used to finance the plot, the officials said yesterday.

The issue is, what makes this America, and how do we keep it that way, protecting it from those who would take it from us.

But finding out where any such funds originated could prove exceedingly difficult, according to government officials and specialists in terrorist financing, who say that by its very nature hawala leaves few clues. The source of the transfer is often anonymous.

“We have more tools than ever before, but when you are dealing with people working very independently and very autonomously you can quickly come to a dead end,’’ said a senior law enforcement official familiar with the investigation who was not authorized to speak publicly.

This story in today’s Boston Globe helps highlight, I think, the danger of not maintaining cultural continuity. Under the guise of multi-culturalism, giving way to large flows of strangers entering the country over a short period of time results in ceding control over who we are and how we operate to strangers.

Hawala, which originates from the Arabic word for change or transform, is a practice that predates modern banking systems and has been around for centuries. There are believed to be thousands of hawala brokers operating in the United States, and they are not necessarily operating outside US laws if they register with the US Department of Treasury. Many don’t, however, operating more like black-market, cash-based versions of Western Union.

Strangers may mean us harm or mean us well, but if they’re coming in too fast and furious, we lose control over America. Think of it in the same terms as the time your kids spend on video games, the internet, or watching TV. There might be nothing wrong with what they’re doing, but at the very least, your influence over the ideas and information they absorb is being reduced. At worst, they’re being exposed to risk, and you’re not even aware of it.

Relying on an informal network of brokers who use designated couriers, the networks are used to transfer money in relatively small amounts in and out of developing nations where modern financial systems are scarce, such as in South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Transactions often can be completed within 24 hours and at a lower cost than a traditional wire transfer or bank draft that could take as long as a week and require official paperwork.

Hawaladars, as the brokers are known, often operate out of cash-intensive businesses such as restaurants, convenience stores, or gas stations, the officials said.

The deliberately weak filter that we have over who enters our country is a clear risk to our well being. That fact is so plain that you have to assume that anyone opposing bringing it under control has motives other than the best interest of the country.

People in Afghanistan and Pakistan are among the most prolific users of the hawala system to transfer money within the region or across the world, according to US officials. A new report by the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs estimates that only 3 percent of Afghanistan’s banking is done through the official banking system.

Let’s get rational about immigration.

Still, frequently even the hawala broker doesn’t know who originally requested the money transfer. If the men arrested were engaged in a hawala operation, “Who were the people who contacted them to give the money to Shahzad?’’ asked Ehrenfeld. “Catching such people is very difficult.’’


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