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.
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.
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."
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."
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."
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."
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."
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."