May 6, 2013 | Commentary on Immigration, National Security and Defense

Don't Link Terror to Immigration Policy

After 9/11, the words “immigration,” “border security” and “terrorism” were often linked in the same sentence. That was unfortunate.

In America, terrorism is a “retail” problem. Terrorists are a small percentage of any group: visitors from overseas, immigrants, All-Americans, criminals—you name it.

Border security and immigration are “wholesale” issues. They affect the movement and activities of tens of millions of people and billions of dollars of commerce. Designing immigration and border-security regimes to stop terrorists is a bit like concreting over turnstiles to prevent fare evasion.

Tools for Terror

Fortunately, after 9/11 antiterrorism measures did relatively little violence to our immigration and border-security regimes. Following its initial, highly publicized best seller, the 9/11 Commission came out with a sequel. This far less publicized report assessed the capacity of bad people to move freely between countries and proposed key countermeasures to control “terrorist travel.”

That led to sensible activities such as better vetting and management of terrorist watch lists. Thanks to that upgrade, authorities were able to track down the Times Square Bomber in real time.

No, the watch lists didn’t prevent the Boston Bombers from executing their plot. But that’s not what the lists are intended to do. They are for monitoring or blocking terrorist travel on international or domestic flights. Tools like watch lists can help stop an attack, but only if the terrorists are the subject of an ongoing investigation before the terrorist act.

When terrorists are homegrown and acting in their hometown, border and immigration measures can be of only incidental use as well. What have proved to be the most effective tools are proactive intelligence, monitoring, information-sharing and investigations that uncover plots before they leave casualities. At least fifty-four Islamist-related plots have been thwarted since 9/11. Three of them were stopped by luck. The others were stopped by collaring the bad guys before they could attack.

It will take a careful assessment of what federal, state and local law enforcement knew about the boys from Boston before anyone can determine if clues were missed that should reasonably have led to serious counterterrorism investigation before the marathon. If mistakes were made, they must be corrected fast, because good counterterrorism operations are the single most powerful and important tool for preventing more Bostons.

The United States cannot afford a timeout in fighting terrorism on the home front. In addition to “homegrown” threats, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran’s Quds Force have active networks that span the continent. Al Qaeda and its affiliates are still trying to get here or inspire others to do their killing for them.

Back to the Border

Border-security and immigration policies may only marginally inconvenience global terrorism. Still, the United States has poured more than a little money into revamping immigration, nonimmigrant visas, and border security since 9/11. That has less to do with terrorism than the fact that our southern border is broken and our immigration and nonimmigration policies and programs are deeply flawed.

There is a reason, for example, why the U.S. spends way more money and resources on the border with Mexico than it does with Canada—and it has little to do with terrorism. A senior government official once told me that the U.S. turns back many times more individuals on the terrorist watch list trying to enter the country from Canada than it does from Mexico. What we are really worried about is that the U.S. southern border is just a road bump for transnational crime that includes the illicit movement of people, drugs, money and guns.

Meanwhile, our immigration system fails on many counts. It has not stemmed the tide of unlawful immigration. It doesn’t serve the 4.4 million waiting in line (some of them for over a decade) to enter the country legally. It doesn’t get employers the workers they need them to run their businesses and grow the economy. It doesn’t extend our best visa privileges to deserving friends and allies like Poland and Chile. The list of complaints goes on.

The reality is that long before the Gang of Eight—indeed, long before 9/11—security-driven attempts to mend our broken borders have often been at cross purposes with Washington’s confused, lackadaisical immigration policies.

Legacy of Failure

Arguably our most recent problems started with Lyndon Johnson’s immigration “reforms” of 1965. Hitting at the same time as Johnson’s “war on poverty,” these reforms dumped more immigrants into a poverty-prolonging dependency on welfare. This was followed by a wave of unlawful migration from Mexico.

In 1986, Washington came up with a silver-bullet solution so simple, both liberals and conservatives could love it. It was a magic formula—grant amnesty, create temporary-worker programs, enforce immigration and workplace laws, and beef up border security—and Ronald Reagan signed it into law. But, in the real world, amnesty came first, and it overwhelmed the imperfect and sometimes nonexistent attempts at implementing the other initiatives.

Throughout the 1990s, for example, the United States actually spent increasing amounts on border security. Perversely, this wound up contributing to the growth of the unlawful population. Since it was harder to get in (and out), migrants stayed in this country instead of going back to Mexico after working a few months, as they had in the past.

Workplace enforcement did not fare much better. When officials actually started going after serial scofflaw employers in the meatpacking industry, they were so successful that the industry quickly and effectively lobbied Washington to shut down the enforcement initiative.

By the time the 9/11 terrorists struck, the unlawful immigrant population had exploded to four times what it was in 1986. Since then, border-security spending has been unprecedented—with predictably unimpressive results. Where effective enforcement is applied, the smugglers move someplace else.

Yes, estimates of the unlawful population have dropped. But experts debate how much that reduction results from border-security efforts and how much it reflects the depressed prospects of finding employment in a sluggish U.S. economy.

Border security is about more than just what is done on the border. The “push and pull” on either side are important factors as well. The answer is not just to throw more money at the border or to seal it at the cost of stifling legitimate trade and travel that helps boost the U.S. economy.

So in 2007, the proposed answer was a reboot of 1986: Wipe the slate clean, add border security and workplace enforcement, and tack on some reforms. The bill went down in flames in large part because of it was a repeat of 1986. Lawmakers had learned that amnesty provides a huge incentive for unlawful migration—one that overwhelms efforts to keep pace.

Failure Redux

To see the Gang of Eight offer another sequel to the deeply flawed 2007 bill is a huge disappointment. First, it repeats the mistake of the past by starting out with a sweeping amnesty—more generous than the 2007 bill. Unlawful immigrants would gain “legal” status on Day One. After that, Washington will somehow fix everything else. That is a recipe for disaster.

There is plenty in the bill to suggest that it will operate the opposite of what’s advertised.

The “border triggers” are a good example. For years the Department of Homeland Security has been unable to produce meaningful metrics to gauge control of the border. The secretary of homeland security routinely claims “the border has never been more secure,” even though she knows she can’t prove it. This is the team that is going to be relied to make sure unlawful migration is never again a problem?

Further, the bill ignores costs. It creates new agencies and programs left and right. It obligates spending by exempting the bill from the sequester restrictions under the Budget Control Act of 2011. It takes no account of the long-term entitlement obligations the federal government will occur when millions of currently unlawful immigrants qualify for benefits.

Finally, the bill is riddled with exceptions, waivers, sweetheart deals, and shaky requirements that bypass most of the security and enforcement commitments made by the Gang of Eight. For example, the proposal would allow documents “issued by a federally recognized Indian tribe” to be used for identity and employment purposes. There are numerous Indian tribes along the southern border, including the Texas Kickapoo, the Ysleta Del Sur, and, the largest, the Tohona O’Odham. Indian reservations already serve as drug pipelines and have been cited as weak links in border security. Given these problems, does it really make sense to add this exemption to legislation aimed at minimizing identification fraud?

Bad border security, crummy immigration policies and programs, lax workplace enforcement are all problems to be solved. Bundling them like a Verizon promotion is not the answer.

In the end, the most damning evidence that this is a bad bill comes from the cheerleading for the bill. After Boston (just like after 9/11), some cried we have to have an amnesty to fight terrorism—to bring people out of the shadows so we know who is in the country. Set aside the fact that the Boston Bombers weren’t living “in the shadows.” Playing the terrorism card to push for border-security reform is an act of desperation—or ignorance of the fact that efficient immigration and border-security policies are ill-suited to be dragooned into the war on terrorism.

Lawmakers should learn from history—not repeat past errors. It’s time to try something different. Put a series of common-sense measures on the table. Let each of them stand or fall on its own merit. Pass little laws that judiciously fight terrorism, build better borders, and keep America the nation of immigrants it always has been.

-James Jay Carafano is vice president of defense and foreign policy studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First appeared in The National Interest.