Immigration and Insecurity: Post-9/11 Fear in the United States
Published on: Jul 28, 2006

John Tirman is executive director of MIT's Center for International Studies and former program director of SSRC’s Global Security and Cooperation Program. A political scientist, Tirman is author, or coauthor and editor, of six books on international security issues, including The Maze of Fear: Security and Migration after 9/11 (2004) and Spoils of War: The Human Cost of America's Arms Trade (1997). This essay is reprinted with permission from the MIT Center for International Studies Audit of the Conventional Wisdom, 06-09 (June 2006).

The attacks of September 11, 2001, transformed the landscape of global security, none more than borders and immigration. The topography of citizenship, belonging, and suspicion instantly changed for Arab and Muslim communities in the United States. They drew the sharp attention of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence services, and that continues. But the public’s focus has swung south to scrutinize the U.S.-Mexican border as a source of insecurity. For the most part, the alarms about immigrants as threats are exaggerated. And the policy choices driven by these concerns—much larger border security measures in particular—are costly in a globalized economy and unnecessary for security in any case.

The ferocious law-enforcement reaction to 9/11 overwhelmed Arab and Muslim communities. At the same time, other immigrants, legal or not, were affected, and most of those migrants are from Latin America, particularly Mexico. So the initial focus of attention, reflecting the ethnicity of the 9/11 attackers, actually affected a much broader swath of people in or hoping to enter the U.S. Only now are we seeing the consequences of this sweeping vigilance.

Muslims in America, about equally from South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and Southeast Asia, were targeted along with their institutions. Several hundreds or thousands of men were detained for months or longer without being charged with crimes, and many were deported for minor infractions. Muslim charities were targeted by the FBI, with many of them closed down and a number of them prosecuted. Transnational labor migration was sharply curtailed. Student visas were more difficult to obtain. Mosques were and are under constant surveillance. Many Muslims and Christian Arabs felt intimidated about speaking out on foreign policy and security issues, particularly the Iraq war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The rationale for the U.S. Government’s action was that these people potentially support terrorism. Yet we now know, through the Report of the 9/11 Commission, that there were no domestic conspiracies of any significance at the time of the attacks, and there have been none revealed since. Of the more than 400 U.S. prosecutions of individuals on terrorism-related charges, virtually none charged were involved in a plot against America.1 “Another 500 people have been charged with immigration violations,” said a Washington Post investigation last year, “after an initial report linking them to a terrorism or homeland security threat.”2 Still, little or nothing has come to light suggesting a domestic conspiracy—nor, indeed, terrorists coming into the country illegally.

Insecure Borders

The effort to round up Muslim and other Arab men continues. It is preventative in many of its features, as with the Palmer raids of the 1920s: “A broad-based approach,” writes legal scholar David Cole, seeking “to neutralize all persons who [the Justice Department] thought might pose a potential future threat. This preventive approach, unmoored from concepts of individual culpability, would prove to be a recurring feature of law enforcement in times of crisis.”3 This legal aggressiveness, notably, proceeds simultaneously with efforts to tighten airport and seaport security, which have been roundly criticized as inadequate, inept, or fraught with corruption.

It also proceeds while the attention of the public has shifted. Due to a harsh immigration control bill passed by the House of Representatives—which would make entry by unauthorized immigrants an aggravated felony—a sharp, new focus on the security of the U.S.-Mexican border is apparent.

Several factors are shaping the increasingly fractious debate about Mexican immigration. Security is most prominent: many politicians and commentators have posed the Mexican border as a security threat. Migration has long had security implications, but mostly linked to “social” security—jobs, welfare, etc.4 Today it is the threat of terrorism that frames debate. The fear—thus far, unfounded—that al Qaeda will sneak across the “unguarded” 2,000-mile border accounts for the urgency.5 In fact, the House bill is called the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005.

The security anxieties mix with the more ordinary opposition to Mexican migrants, a longstanding tendency in American history. Related to issues of overwhelmed border area hospitals and schools, competition for low-skilled jobs, and the effect on wages, this opposition focuses its ire on the ten to twelve million who are “illegals.” While the overall impact of immigration, including unauthorized workers, is a net positive for the U.S. economy, the localized effects can be difficult for border states, particularly as government support for social services has declined over time. The effect of unauthorized immigrants on wages of American workers, another hot-button issue, is uncertain.6 So measures such as electronic fences, deployment of national guard troops, roundups of unauthorized workers in places of employment, and expanded border patrols are advocated to keep illegal immigrants out and provide an added shield against al Qaeda. Some have suggested the same for the Canadian border. But do such policies work?

Clash of Globalizations

Such measures have not worked in the past with respect to Mexican workers. As migration theorist Douglas Massey points out, the higher levels of security in heavily trafficked areas such as San Diego merely dispersed the entry points as well as the unauthorized migrants once they were inside the U.S. In effect, he notes, these policies have transformed a “regional movement affecting three states into a national phenomenon affecting all 50 states [and] a seasonal movement of male workers into a settled population of families.”7 Because these heightened-security measures raise the costs of entry, the workers tend to remain in the United States much longer than they once did, while the overall numbers continue to climb.