After 9/11, Immigration Became About Homeland Security

9/11 Made Immigration Debate About Terrorism

By + More

The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Angela Maria Kelley remembers driving past the Pentagon on her way to an immigration policy meeting on Capitol Hill. She'd heard on NPR that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers in New York City, but like the rest of the nation at that point, Kelley had no idea about the magnitude of what was going on.

Kelley, then deputy director of the immigrant-rights organization National Immigration Forum, was on her way to meet with congressional staffers on putting together policies to reflect recent collaboration by President George W. Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox—the two leaders planned to work together on border security, anti-drug trafficking measures, and a path to legalization for undocumented Mexican immigrants living in the United States. Fox had addressed a joint session of Congress five days earlier, a symbol of the growing cooperation between the nations.

[Read more about immigration reform.]

Kelley recalls waiting in then Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office reception area along with his staffers and aides from Sen. Ted Kennedy's and House Minority Leader Rep. Richard Gephardt's staffs, waiting to start the meeting.

But the news trickled in: A plane hit the Pentagon, another hit the second tower in New York, and an additional plane was missing. Capitol Police evacuated the building.

Kelley, now vice president for immigration policy and advocacy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, says that immigration meeting was never rescheduled. "We just shifted topics," Kelley explains, to deal with tightening up nonimmigrant visas for students and businesses—the sort of visas the 9/11 terrorists had used. "It redirected the conversation with such ferociousness because of the completely understandable concerns in the wake of such a horrible tragedy," she says, explaining that the policy discussions were dominated by enforcement, pushing the previous priorities to the back burner. "But it took it into a space that made it difficult for a long time."

News that the hijackers had entered the country legally through the U.S. visa process—and that a few had overstayed visas and were in the country illegally—led to a string of laws to tighten the visa process and other restrictions on immigrants. The concept of immigration was suddenly viewed through the lens of "homeland security," a newly ubiquitous term, and the debate swung heavily toward enforcement and prevention, accompanied by a heightened rhetoric of fear.

[Read more about national security, terrorism, and the military.]

Latin Americans and National Security

Latin Americans had nothing to do with 9/11: The terrorists did not use the southwestern U.S. border, and all were from the Middle East. But since, according to Pew Hispanic Center, the vast majority of unauthorized immigrants come from Latin America and the largest group of U.S. foreign-born residents are from Mexico, when America's spotlight focused on immigration enforcement, that spotlight was shining on them.

Before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it seemed likely a path to legal status was in the cards for Mexicans in the country illegally. Just five years earlier, in 1997, the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act gave a way for some illegal immigrants from Nicaragua, Cuba, El Salvador, and Guatemala to gain permanent resident status. In 1998, the Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act did the same for Haitians. Opponents, who called these actions "amnesties," were already working to build opposition, but for those advocating a pathway to citizenship, hopes were high.

For Roy Beck, president of Numbers USA, which advocates limiting immigration overall, this new focus on enforcement was a relief since it changed a growing pattern of legalization legislation. "There have been zero amnesties passed since 9/11," he says. "It may be that 9/11 did change the environment so that it became harder for Congress to continue to pass an amnesty every couple years."