Immigration and the Wide Net Strategy

25 01 2008

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, aggressive enforcement of immigration laws has been conflated with counterterrorism efforts. Anti-immigrant legislation and the race-baiting rhetoric by elected officials and pundits alike have contributed to confusing real looming national security threats such as terrorism with the spike in undocumented immigration. But nowhere is this shift more evident than in the rhetoric and the professed policy aims of many of the Republican candidates for president. For example, Mike Hucabee warns his supporters on his campaign site:

In this age of terror, immigration is not only an economic issue, but also a national security issue. We must know who is coming into our country, where they are going, and why they are here. All those who are caught trying to enter illegally must be detained, processed, and deported.

Not to be outdone Mitt Romney claims on his site, “The increasing tide of illegal immigration has eroded Americans’ faith in the rule of law, put great pressure on our health and education systems, and compromised our national security as our ability to secure our border is questioned around the world.” Fred Thompson and Duncan Hunter, both of whom recently dropped out, also adhere to the same talking points.

Guiliani desperate to dodge the “mayor of a sanctuary city” label, has proposed a plan that includes monitoring the presence of all immigrants and even tourists admitted into the United States.

But none of the candidates have mentioned or emphasize the role of intelligence gathering in deterring genuine threats to public safety that’s presumably the result of a broken immigration system. All of the top GOP Presidential contenders, with the possible exception of McCain, are focused on crafting harsher immigration laws with enforcement standards that make it harder for people to come here legally or become legalized. But still fail to address how to target real terrorists.

As counter intuitive as this sounds, however, terrorists are not going to be stopped by harsher immigration laws. They are more than capable of adapting to the changes. As the Immigration Immigration Law Foundation notes:

We must accept the reality that harsher immigration laws would not have stopped the terrorists. Al Qaeda has shown a rare diligence and capacity to comply with the laws, or at least to appear to comply with them. For example, there were indications in the early 1990s that terrorists were trying to use the asylum system to gain entry to the United States.

When the U.S. Government became aware of this and started detaining asylum applicants who were suspected terrorists, the terrorists switched their tactics and began using tourist and student visas. More recently, they have been recruiting American citizens, who cannot be excluded from the United States no matter how harsh our immigration laws. As immigration laws change, terrorists simply adapt.

(More after the jump)

Thus, even when the laws do change terrorists have proven they can sidestep them and exploit certain loopholes. For example, immigration laws became harsher after the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, yet it did nothing to stop anyone of the 9/11 highjackers.

In fact, one of the terrorists who downed on the jet that crashed into the Pentagon arose no suspicion by immigration officials despite arriving in the United States on a student visa and never showing up to class. Generally speaking, immigration officials do not have the training to carry out resource intensive investigations on their own. But other entities within the intelligence community are indeed equip enough to do the job. This so-called “war on terror” should be an intelligence driven affair using tried and proven investigative techniques rather than seek to institutionalize xenophobia.

Zacarias Moussaoui, for example, was captured because the French police informed the FBI about his suspected terrorist ties, not because he was roped in through some national dragnet. But the current environment is so poisoned by fear and ignorance that many of the Republican candidates feel as if they have to pander to such visceral nativism by treating immigrants as invaders rather than confronting real threats through intelligence or basic investigative methods.

Though Huckabee has made headlines by winning the endorsement of Numbers USA, Rudy Guiliani perhaps has the scariest plan to curb unauthorized immigration. He wants to create so-called tamper proof biometric data of all immigrants and all tourists entering the United States. All the data about you on this card will be collected in a database own and operated by the federal government, despite the fact that federal databases are notorious for poor management. He also wants to beef up border security with more drones and officers station. That would seem useful, but again do we really want to cast that wide a net?

Watch Guiliani make his pitch here.

By treating every visitor or immigrant as a potential criminal or terrorist suspect we would overwhelm our resources. Plus, the U.S. has already tried something like what Rudy Guiliani is proposing it was called the Special Registration program. This program required fingerprinting, photographing, and interviewing 85,000 Muslim and Arab immigrants between November 2002 and May 2003. Since this program was simply another form of racial profiling it did not take long to see how much of a colossal failure it turned out to be. According to the New York Times,

Officials have acknowledged that most of the Arabs and Muslims who have complied with the requirements had no ties to terrorist groups. Of the 85,000 men who went to immigration offices early this year, as well as tens of thousands screened at airports and border crossings, 11 had links to terrorism, officials said.

Not only is that an embarrassingly low success rate, but has regrettably led to physical abuse at various federal detention centers.

More importantly, these nutty ideas not only undermine our civil liberties and encourage the growth of a surveillance state, but also fail to make us safer or freer. In the end, they just create busy work for immigration officials. According to the American Immigration Law Center:

There is significant evidence that, since September 11th, the U.S. government again is wasting precious resources on immigration policies that do very little to enhance national security. For example, (former) Attorney General John Ashcroft has implemented a program to more rigorously enforce the law requiring immigrants to notify the federal government of any change of address within ten days. This program was billed as an “anti-terrorism” measure, despite the fact that it does little or nothing to detect terrorists. Soon after this program was announced, the federal government was swamped with hundreds of thousands of change-of-address notices, which it was unable to process. There is no reason to believe that forcing potential terrorists to file change-of-address notices would stop them for committing acts of terrorism, but the wheels of bureaucracy churn on, processing the forms anyway. Similarly, with a program called “Special Registration,” the government required thousands of mostly male and Muslim foreigners to report repeatedly to immigration offices, where immigration officials collected reams of personal information on them, including their credit card numbers, and made them wait for hours or risk deportation. Not a single terrorist was uncovered through this program, but thousands of immigrants were detained and sometimes abused when they attempted to comply with it. Significant government resources have gone into enforcing this and other similarly ill-conceived bureaucratic responses to September 11th.

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