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

This reflects the powerful relationship between immigration and economic globalization, including the loosening or elimination of borders, a feature of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. When debated in the early 1990s, NAFTA was pictured as a solution to illegal immigration. As scholar Peter Andreas observed several years ago, this “solution” actually “fuels such immigration in the short and medium term. . . . The combination of NAFTA and the side effects of Mexico’s own domestic market reforms will add as much as several hundred thousand to the number of Mexicans who migrate to the United States annually through at least the end of the century.”8 This has proved to be precisely correct.

Nor should it be surprising, since the integration of the North American economy was one NAFTA’s goals, and that integration—in trade, capital and investment, communications, legal harmonization, etc.—must include the labor force as well. But another globalization, that of a worldwide security net and deterrent to violent, non-state actors, is at cross purposes with this long wave of economic reform. The “securitization” of migration, a global phenomenon of ever-expanding security envelopes, makes it much more difficult for migrants to cross borders, even as the world economy demands such movement.

Effects on Communities

For Latinos in the United States, the perceived level of intimidation has gone up markedly since 9/11. In a lengthy survey of Californians taken a year ago, the University of Southern California reports that since 9/11, 55 percent of Hispanics felt “less secure.” Eighty percent said they “worry more about the future” than before 9/11. Thirty-seven percent report making less money than before 9/11, and 72 percent of those attribute those losses to 9/11.

Interestingly, perhaps paradoxically, of those Middle Easterners polled in this survey, 42 percent said they feel less secure since 9/11; 70 percent worry more often; 29 percent say they are making less money. All of these are about 10 percentage points lower for Middle Easterners than for Latinos. The one exception is in racial or ethnic discrimination: significantly more than half of Pakistani, Iranian, and Arabic respondents say they have been victims, which is much higher than for Latinos. For all groups, remittances—a source of income for developing countries that far exceeds official aid programs—have dropped sharply.9

These figures may reflect the impact of harsher immigration policies, rhetoric, news media coverage, and vigilante groups. “The ‘collateral consequences’ of such policies,” writes migration scholar David Hernandez, “inflict hardships on immigrants’ families,” such as “financial and emotional distress, increased risk of fatal disease, and increased social risks to vulnerable children. Many of these consequences of immigrant detention fly under the radar of public opinion or concern, and have been termed ‘invisible punishment.’” This may be true particularly of a mixed-status family in which one or more family members is a citizen and one or more is not. This mixture characterizes one in four families in California and one in six in New York.10 The effects on families of criminalizing unauthorized immigrant workers would surely be devastating, especially for children, a very high percentage of whom are citizens.

A concern among some observers—particularly in light of what we know of the terrorist bombings in Madrid and London and the alleged plot in Toronto—is that deep disaffection among immigrant groups, aggravated by intense anger at wars in Iraq and Afghanistan particularly, creates social volatility. A feedback loop of global scope may be feeding insecurity among immigrants and natives alike.

Solutions and Non-solutions

The Department of Homeland Security, the most prominent domestic response to 9/11, is now seen as poorly planned and managed. Now it is likely to be given new border security tasks in response to the unsubstantiated concerns about the Mexican border spurred by a few politicians, anti-immigration groups, and supportive news media. DHS will post more border patrols and other highly visible (but ineffective) fixes. And like border militarization, making 11-12 million unauthorized immigrants into felons is a policy that cannot be implemented and would be haphazardly punitive. It is also unnecessary.

More promising ideas would forge a route to citizenship for the millions here and a guest worker program for those who wish to come. Both should appeal to those worried about security. The veneer of false identities would be stripped away from those here as they apply for citizenship. The criminal networks of human traffickers—“snakes” and “coyotes”—would be rendered useless by a guest worker program. (During the Bracero program, a guest worker scheme of 1942-64 occasioned by labor shortages of the Second World War, unauthorized immigration was reduced dramatically.) Border patrols can then focus on actual security matters, if any arise.

The security anxieties sparked by immigration are disproportionate to the actual problems posed. The arrest of people on legitimate terror lists was obviously an overdue measure. But otherwise there is little cause for alarm from immigrants. Economic opportunity, social cohesiveness, and national safety are not threatened by the ordinary labor migration that has enriched the United States for three centuries. Unauthorized immigration is well understood by scholars, and reasonably promising solutions are available. If the political process is working properly, the dislocations caused by previous mistakes in immigration policy should be readily and humanely correctible.