After 9/11, Immigration Became About Homeland Security

9/11 Made Immigration Debate About Terrorism

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In fact, the trajectory of immigration legislation and policy took a complete turn, as an August report from the Migration Policy Institute details. Programs to allow local law enforcement officials to cooperate with federal immigration agents meant immigration policy tightened significantly, and attempts at comprehensive immigration reform under both Presidents Bush and Obama—which usually included enforcement, a guest worker program, and a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants—have failed. The attacks "derailed anything and everything that wasn't crackdown enforcement," says Rick Swartz, an expert in immigration policy who helped construct and advocate pro-immigrant legislation since the 1980s and founded the National Immigration Forum. The goal after the attacks, he says, was "round people up; prevent this from happening again; prepare for new attacks."

[Read Obama's 4 ways forward on immigration.]

Heightened Public Interest in Enforcement

Out of the widespread attention to immigration enforcement after 9/11, a wide array of citizen activist groups sprouted, fighting for stricter immigration policies—like the Coalition for a Secure Driver's License—or border security—like the Minuteman Project. Others grew. For example, Beck's Numbers USA was founded in 1996 and had about 4,000 members before 9/11. That next year, Beck says, it nearly tripled its membership. The group now has over a million members.

For those who applaud stricter immigration policy, the heightened public sentiment and attention was positive. Healthy, even. "What 9/11 really shocked Americans into realizing is that some [immigrants]—and it doesn't take very many—are terrorists," says Beck. "They know that immigrants are mixed bag, just like all people."

[Check out a roundup of editorial cartoons on immigration policy.]

But for others, the sentiment is pernicious. Chris Newman, legal programs director at the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, believes 9/11 increased the fear and suspicion of immigrants. "It's magnified the fear of the other and the fear of the newcomer, and the fear of people arriving on our shores," Newman says. "It's now, unfortunately, poisoned the current immigration debate." When Newman first got involved as an advocate for day laborers before 9/11, he says, people didn't pay them much mind. Over time, though, "in some way, the fear of undocumented immigrants supplanted the fear of terrorists," he says. Newman points out that the word "homeland" didn't enter the mainstream American lexicon until after 9/11, and he thinks the term is a dangerous symbol of "us vs. them."

James Carafano, a homeland security expert at the right-leaning Heritage Foundation, thinks the connection between immigration and terrorism in policy discussions did make it more difficult to have a rational debate with some people, who could just throw in terrorism and halt the conversation. But it's not a completely false connection, he says. "There is a linkage there, in the sense that if you have a system that works really well, it's a lot easier to catch bad people."

Homeland Security Institutionalized

This connection between immigration and terrorism was solidified into a bureaucracy, the Department of Homeland Security. What was the Immigration and Naturalization Service in the Justice Department split into three parts, all under the newly formed DHS: Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The change is significant. Before 1940, immigration was handled under the Department of Labor—it was a worker issue. Under the Department of Justice, it was a legal and civil rights issue. Under DHS, it is an enforcement and terrorism issue. The agency is a bureaucracy to keep out rather than welcome in, according to Swartz, now president of Strategic Solutions Washington, a public policy consulting firm that works to build left-right coalitions. "A bureaucracy set up for homeland security purposes is bound to have a different culture and mind-set that attracts certain kinds of people to work there," Swartz says. The top priority of DHS, he explains, is to prevent terrorist attacks, not help people get visas. "It's a cultural matter, and cultures get institutionalized in bureaucracies."