The Closing of the American Border

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ImageThe number of people who got visas to come to the United States dropped by more than 30 percent from before 9/11 to 2003 and 2004.

Misguided immigration policies?

Editor's Note: The war on terror has come home to America. But when did the war on terror morph into a war on illegal immigration? Today it is much harder for a terrorist to enter the United States than it used to be, but according to Edward Alden, it's also much harder for everyone else. Edward Alden is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Closing of the American Border: Terrorism, Immigration and Security Since 9/11. Alden was interviewed by New America Media editor Sandip Roy.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the government seemed to put forth a unified stance on the need to combat terror. But you say in your book that there was actually a fierce internal fight between two groups – you call them The Cops versus The Technocrats. Who are they?

Indeed, this fight began the very night of 9/11. Jim Ziglar, who was the head of Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) at the time, was strongly opposed to what the Ashcroft Justice Department did after 9/11, which was to use immigration laws aggressively as a counter-terrorism tool, to hold people on immigration violations if they believed they had even the slightest connection to terrorism.

There was one faction that said, "Look, we need to use immigration law aggressively as our main tool in the war on terrorism." Another group of people, most of them under Tom Ridge in the White House, and later the Department of Homeland Security, said, "Look, if we do that, all we're going to succeed in doing is driving away people that we want and need to come to the United States. We need to be more targeted and intelligent about how we strengthen our border after 9/11."

You quote George W. Bush saying to his customs chief, "You've got to secure our borders against a terror threat, but you have to do it without shutting down the U.S. economy." How did the ones who were all for using immigration law win out?

The ones who wanted to strengthen border controls intelligently knew what they wanted to do, but it was a long process. You needed to develop new systems to identify more accurately who was coming into the United States and who you had reason to be concerned about.

The people in the Justice Department who wanted to use immigration law didn't need to wait. Immigration law is an incredibly powerful tool for arresting and detaining any foreigner. One of the officials that I interviewed said, "Immigration law is like tax law – you're guilty until proven innocent."

One of the things that happened as a result of using immigration law is so much of the focus shifted to the southern border, which was not a factor in the 9/11 attacks. You say in your book that in fact there was a real threat of terrorists coming from Canada.

There are two ways in which terrorists have entered the United States. The most common one has been on airplanes. The northern border has also, on a handful of occasions, been used by terrorist to get into the United States. The most famous case was the case of Ahmed al Hassan, who was stopped by a customs inspector at a border in Washington state.

What about the southern border?

There are no documented cases of terrorists using the southern border to get into the United States. But if your primary tool for fighting the war on terrorism is immigration law, and you think that by cracking down on illegal immigrants you are going to secure the country from terrorists, well, the vast majority of illegal immigrants are coming across the southern border, so inevitably that's where you're going to concentrate your resources.

When you talk to people who wanted to use immigration law as a counter-terrorism measure, did you get a sense that they were doing it because they had to show something concrete, or did they really believe it would work to make the country safer?

The biggest motivation was fear. There was the belief among almost everybody inside the U.S. government after 9/11 that another attack was coming and they really had no idea where it might be coming from. The FBI had no good sources in the Muslim communities in the United States, the border control systems were fairly ineffective, and so they thought, let's just use the tool we've got and go out and detain as many people as we can and hopefully that will prevent another attack.

But I do think that there were some people inside the government who wanted to use this to push more generally for a crackdown on illegal immigration. Most of the arguments we hear against illegal immigration are economic arguments. What happened after 9/11 was suddenly you had this new set of security fears. That allowed the government to do things that are far more Draconian than would have been accepted under a circumstance where you didn't have that security fear.

What measures have become acceptable after 9/11 that didn't have public support before?

The construction of border barriers. I don't think there is any way we would have considered building a fence all along the border. I don't think we would see a Border Patrol that has nearly doubled in size from 10,000 to close to 20,000.

We certainly would not have seen all of the screening mechanisms that we see now: the fingerprinting at the airport, the proliferation of these terrorist watch lists and no-fly lists.

What do you think is the most troubling of these measures?

Probably most troubling to me, I don't think we would see anything like the level of detention that we see right now. At any given time, in the United States now, there are 30,000 to 40,000 people detained on immigration violation awaiting deportation. They often spend months and months in jail with no real due process, awaiting deportation. Even families with small children are being held in what amount to small jails. I don't think we would have seen measures that are that harsh without the fears that were thrown up by 9/11.

In the course of researching this book, did you find border control measures or other security measure that have been put in place since 9/11 that you think, in fact, do work and we should keep doing?

Within about two hours after the 9/11 attacks, the customs service was able to identify accurately all 19 of the hijackers. The reason they were able to do that is they have access to the flight manifests of those aircrafts.

One of the things that's happened since 9/11 is that you require advanced information on anyone flying into the United States so that the Department of Homeland Security has a chance to run checks against watch lists. I think those kinds of targeted intelligence measures have proven very effective since 9/11 – and not disruptive, for the most part, to innocent travelers who are, after all, the vast majority of people coming into the United States.

What has been the main unintended consequence of this strategy?

The number of people who got visas to come to the United States dropped by more than 30 percent from before 9/11 to 2003 and 2004. You saw long delays to get visas. The result was a lot of the talented immigrants that we want to attract to this country started going to other places. I think the biggest unintended consequence was that, in an effort to identify a handful of terrorists, we've kept out hundreds of thousands of people that we wanted to come to this country.

What do you think is going to be the first task of the new president when it comes to borders, security and counter-terrorism?

What I'm hoping is that the new administration will succeed in separating terrorism from illegal immigration as much as possible in the public discussion. These are two very different problems. The tools you need to deal with illegal immigration are not the tools that you need to keep terrorists out of the country. So, I'm hoping that either an Obama or a McCain administration would begin to make those distinctions.

So what is the connection between counter-terrorism and immigration policy?

The whole challenge in counter-terrorism is to try to identify what really is a needle in a haystack, which is a small handful of people who intend to do serious harm. What you need to do to help increase the odds that you are going to be able to identify that needle is to shrink the haystack. So, I believe we need comprehensive immigration reform, because if you can take some of the population who now comes here illegally and channel that into legal ways, then you shrink the haystack and that makes the counter-terrorism problem that much easier to deal with. I think that needs to be a priority for any new administration.

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