9/11 forever changed the concept of immigration in the US

The re-situating of US immigration policy to a matter of national security has reflected the explosion of anti-immigrant sentiments in the broader society.
The re-situating of US immigration policy to a matter of national security has reflected the explosion of anti-immigrant sentiments in the broader society.
Image: Reuters/Sam Hodgson
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Following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the United States government implemented a series of policy changes that would forever change the country’s immigration landscape. Because all 19 of the men who carried out attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon that day were foreign nationals—terrorists, it must be noted, who had all entered the country legally—detecting and preventing the entry of would-be terrorists became the central motivation for post-9/11 immigration policy.

As such, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which had overseen all immigration and permanent residency attainment from within the US Department of Justice (DOJ) since 1993, was dissolved in 2003. It was replaced by the broader infrastructure of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which was signed into existence by president George W. Bush directly following the 9/11 attacks in November of 2001.

Specifically, the functions previously carried out by INS were replaced by three subagencies of DHS:

  1. US Customs and Border Protection, which oversees customs and border security, under the auspices of which the US Border Patrol operates.
  2. US Citizenship and Immigration Services, which oversees naturalization and the attainment of legal residency.
  3. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which oversees enforcement of immigration laws in the US, as well as immigrant detention and deportations. ICE is also responsible for enforcing the notorious Secure Communities and 287(g) programs.

While intended to increase coordination and efficiency between agencies, the absorption of all immigration policy execution and enforcement within a single body like the DHS is troubling for a number of reasons. Perhaps most importantly, it fundamentally alters the core American philosophy toward immigration, moving it away from one that is primarily welcoming to one that is largely deflective.

It also renders the average immigrant as guilty until proven innocent in many ways. Take the biometric tracking of foreign nationals on US soil, for example. Carried out through subagencies like the Office of Biometric Identity Management (OBIM)—the most recent iteration of the hugely problematic National Security Entry-Exist Registration System (NSEERS)—biometric tracking required men from 25 predominantly Muslim countries to register their fingerprints and biometric data upon arrival in the US.

There is also the establishment of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to contend with. Though probably a necessary addition to the national-security arsenal, it has become a breeding ground for rampant discrimination and racial profiling.

It’s not hard to see how this re-situating of immigration policymaking has reflected a cultural shift in broader American society. Since 9/11, the visibility of anti-immigrant sentiments has exploded to the extent that it is now a chief campaign platform for Republican presidential hopefuls. This is a major departure from conservative standard-bearers of pre-9/11 America; president Ronald Reagan was identifiably pro-immigration and pro-amnesty, after all.

Obviously, security agencies and law enforcement need to be kept abreast of the country’s in- and outflow of people. And perhaps the zealotry with which agencies like ICE operates (ICE deports more non-criminals than criminals) has helped prevent another domestic act of terror on the scale of 9/11 in the 14 years since. But to keep immigration oversight solely within the confines of a government department specifically engineered to combat terrorism is supreme overkill. And as with most cases of supreme overkill, in the process of rooting out a dangerous minority, it punishes scores of innocent people who could have otherwise had a positive impact on American society. It’s also fantastically expensive to deport people who don’t need to be deported—people who otherwise pay into flailing federal entitlement programs.

Going forward, it would be better to revive the INS in some capacity, perhaps reinstating it under the DOJ (as immigration is, above all else, an issue of legality). Or perhaps, given the importance of immigration processing, it should have its own federal executive department. Canada, for instance, has a separate Department of Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC),with its own minister in the Canadian cabinet. The Canadian Border Services Agency handles border-crossing from a security standpoint, and effectively pulls personnel from CIC and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), with general border enforcement. The United States could implement a similar body, utilizing the resources of the State Department, DOJ, and DHS to ensure a fair-minded, non-discriminatory, but still security-conscious immigration system.

Maintaining immigration as first and foremost an area of national security both squanders precious resources and dangerously subverts one of this country’s foundational messages: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Instead, the post 9/11 message has been: “Who are you? What do you want? How did you get here? Yeah, actually, get out.”