Bin Laden Was a Pretext for Anti-Immigrant Policies

Addressing the challenge of undocumented immigration was a front-burner issue in the summer 2001. A day before 9/11, Mexico President Vicente Fox was making demands that the United States provide some type of relief for undocumented Mexican workers in the United States. President Bush was receptive, pledging a legalization bill by the end of the year. That all changed when the terrorist attacks pushed progressive immigration reform off the table, and the new era of viewing immigration through a national security lens provided a license for immigrant bashing.

For anti-immigrant forces in the United States, 9/11 provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to use the tragic events to draw linkages with virtually every aspect of their nativist agenda. For example, the restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies argued that "immigration is central" to homeland security because terrorist "operatives have to enter and work in the United States." The Bush White House helped lay the foundation for the neo-nativist agenda in its legislative proposals, arguing that our enemies could "take advantage of our freedom and openness by secretly inserting terrorists into our country to attack our homeland."

The events of 9/11 and the ensuing call to action from the anti-immigrant lobby resulted in far-reaching legislative and enforcement actions. These enforcement actions had implications not only for suspected terrorists but also for immigrants already in the United States and noncitizens trying to enter as immigrants or with nonimmigrant visas. The Patriot Act passed Congress with near unanimous support, and the president signed it into law a mere six weeks after 9/11. The vast powers embodied in the law provide expanded authority to search, monitor, and detain citizens and noncitizens alike, but its implementation preyed most heavily on noncitizen Arabs, Muslims, and Sikhs.

To further emphasize how future visa issuance and immigration enforcement would be screened through the lens of national security, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was subsumed into the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) by the end of 2002. Previously, the INS was under the control of the attorney general's Justice Department -- an enforcement-minded institution, but now clamping down on noncitizens in the name of national security was institutionalized. The new cabinet-level department merged all or parts of 22 federal agencies, with a combined budget of $40 billion and 170,000 workers, representing the biggest government reorganization in 50 years.

As though the Patriot Act did not provide enough authority to target certain noncitizens, Congress used the backdrop of 9/11 to enact even more enforcement-related immigration laws in early 2005. In response to the 9/11 Commission report, Congress drafted legislation to implement Commission recommendations. During debates on the legislation, several members of Congress, most notably Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin) argued for the inclusion of a number of contentious immigration measures.

These measures went beyond the Commission's specific recommendations, nearly preventing the 9/11 Commission legislation's passage. His immigration-related proposals would expand the government's authority to arrest, detain, and deport immigrants; restrict judicial review and oversight; and reduce the number of documents immigrants may use to establish their identity. Sensenbrenner also wanted to include rewards for immigrant bounty hunters and a provision barring states from issuing driver's licenses to undocumented aliens. Although Sensenbrenner did not get his way in 2004, by 2005, he pushed through the Real ID Act that required all states to issue driver's licenses that include a "common machine-readable technology," essentially a de facto national identity card.

Perhaps the failure and ill-advisedness of the use of immigration policies to catch terrorists is best illustrated by the results of the special registration (or NSEERS) program. The call-in program required male noncitizens from 25 mostly Arab and Muslim countries to register with immigration authorities between November 2002 and April 2003. About 83,000 men came forward, and nearly 13,000 were placed in deportation proceedings. Many (the actual number is unknown) were in fact deported for minor immigration violations, but no one was charged with crimes related to terrorism. The INS held closed hearings for more than 600 immigrants because the government designated the detainees to be of "special interest" to the government -- the detainees were Muslim. Again, the call-in program uncovered no actual terrorists.

What is the result of the immigration-related, anti-terrorism initiatives? Certainly not the capture of terrorists. Instead, the initiatives have created an atmosphere of anti-immigrant fervor which suggests that it is okay to be biased against Latinos, Arab-Americans, and Muslims. Vigilante racism by private citizens attempting to de-Americanize immigrants of color can become quite ugly. At one point after 9/11, hate crimes against Muslims soared, rising more than 1,500 percent. And discrimination in the workplace climbed after September 11.

Our government's major successes in apprehending terrorists have not come from post-September 11 immigration initiatives but from other efforts such as international intelligence gathering, law enforcement cooperation, and information provided by arrests made abroad. A few noncitizens detained through these immigration initiatives have been characterized as terrorists, but the only charges actually brought against them were for routine immigration violations or ordinary crimes.

In recognition of the overwhelming numbers of law-abiding, hardworking immigrants in our midst, the 9/11 Commission reminded Americans:

Our borders and immigration system, including law enforcement, ought to send a message of welcome, tolerance, and justice to members of immigrant communities in the United States and in their countries of origin. We should reach out to immigrant communities.

Our immigration policy makers have ignored that recommendation.

Targeting noncitizens of a certain ethnic, religious, or racial background or closing our borders to newcomers or visitors is a national security strategy that does not make our country safe. In fact, those strategies may diminish the opportunity to engage newcomer communities in assisting with smarter law enforcement approaches to public safety.

Because the 9/11 hijackers were foreign-born, cracking down on noncitizens -- especially those who looked like or were of the same religion as the hijackers -- made sense to some. But the crackdown apprehended no terrorists. By falling for the temptation of profiling, we actually sacrificed the fundamental values and principles of openness and inclusion that we ought to have been guarding. Those like Osama bin Laden who would do us harm won an important battle when we chose to target Arab, Muslim, South Asian and other people of color in our communities. We damaged a part of America, shaming ourselves in the process.