After 9/11, Immigration Became About Homeland Security

9/11 Made Immigration Debate About Terrorism

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Border Security

In recent years, the enforcement energy, particularly among conservatives, has been channeled full force toward border security. The fight in Congress doesn't always break down by party, but typically Democrats call for comprehensive immigration reform and Republicans say complete border security should be in place before any other changes come to the table.

"9/11 just awoke everybody to the fact that it was awfully easy to get into the United States," says Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, a member of the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and Border Security. The terrorist attack is one reason he focuses on border security, though he emphasizes a secure border means secure against anyone crossing without permission. "When you're talking about securing the border, you're talking about securing it for people who want to come here … for very peaceful reasons or even for very violent reasons," he says. "It doesn't matter whether they're disrespecting our laws on doing harm to Americans or disrespecting our laws on entering our country."

[Read Obama's 4 roadblocks to immigration reform.]

Others have gone further, even suggesting terrorists have set up training camps along the U.S.-Mexico border, like Texas Republican Rep. John Culberson on Fox News in 2005 and Florida Republican Rep. Allen West during his 2010 congressional campaign.

But it's unclear whether such claims have merit or are simply rumor. DHS press secretary Matt Chandler says his department currently "does not have any credible information on terrorist groups operating along the Southwest border."

Texas Democratic Rep. Silvestre Reyes, former chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, has a problem with this kind of rhetoric. "It is regrettable and foolish that some of my colleagues want to go as far as to manufacture issues that have nothing to do with illegal immigration," he says. Reyes spent 26 years working for the Border Patrol in Texas, and he agrees the borders need to be secure, but he thinks talking about terrorists on the border is just a strategy to create a sense of chaos and fear for political gain. "Unfortunately, there are those members in Congress that want to exploit the effects of 9/11 to demonize immigrants that are here doing vital and important work," he says, "like picking our crops, working in the service industries, and other areas."

Kelley of the Center for American Progress, who saw her work on immigration policy shift so dramatically toward enforcement after the attacks 10 years ago, also gets frustrated by some of the rhetoric about border security, particularly since illegal migration over the Mexican border has shrunk dramatically in recent years, likely from a combination of increased security, the battered U.S. economy, and economic improvements in Mexico.

"It's an uphill climb, frankly, to try to have facts infuse the debate," Kelley says, disputing those who continue to say hordes are crossing the border, and who continue to tie the border to terrorism. "It's like Diet Coke—it has no calories, and the immigration debate has no facts."

  • Read: Privacy Advocates Fear Immigration ID System.
  • Check out a roundup of political cartoons on immigration reform.
  • Read Obama's 4 roadblocks to immigration reform.