Get Tight: Now more than ever, immigration should be curtailed

By Mark Krikorian on March 25, 2002
National Review

March 25, 2002

Since Sept. 11, a new consensus appears to have developed on the need for tighter immigration enforcement and border controls. Gone are the days when the Wall Street Journal repeatedly called for a constitutional amendment declaring that “there shall be open borders.” After 9/11, even the libertarian-leftist united front for open borders, which so successfully obstructed immigration enforcement in the past, has had at least to pretend to support border control.

This change has manifested itself in many ways. The USA Patriot Act, last year’s major piece of anti-terrorism legislation, contained immigration-related provisions—including one that gave the INS and State Department access to the FBI's criminal databases. Legislation passed by the House and pending in the Senate, cosponsored by Sens. Feinstein, Kyl, Brownback, and Kennedy (yes, Ted Kennedy), would mandate the creation of a visa document for “nonimmigrant” foreigners (e.g., tourists, students, and businessmen) that would contain a fingerprint or other identifier, to help the INS keep track of the visitors.

The agencies responsible for immigration have also made changes. The INS, for instance, decided that it should start looking for the 300,000-plus foreigners who have absconded after being ordered deported, and these names are being entered into the FBI’s national crime database. And the State Department began requiring more intensive examination of visa applications from young men from Muslim countries (the policy has since been expanded to young men from all countries).

There is much left to accomplish in the area of border control; for instance, the INS still has a laughably small number of investigators, and the State Department’s manual for visa officers still says that “advocating terrorism, through oral or written statements, is usually not a sufficient ground for finding an applicant ineligible.” But while the details matter, the principle of sovereign borders is no longer matter of mainstream debate.

An Overworked INS

One important taboo remains: We can’t discuss the levels of immigration as a homeland-security issue. Indeed, the idea of any connection between immigration and terrorism continues to be dismissed by many people. INS commissioner James Ziglar, for instance, observed that in discussing terrorism, “we’re not talking about immigration, we’re talking about evil.” He has even employed the “if-X-then-the-terrorists-win” cliche, saying: “If, in response to the events of September 11, we engage in excess and shut out what has made America great, then we will have given the terrorists a far greater victory than they could have hoped to achieve.”

Advocacy groups have made the same point. Cecilia Munoz of the National Council of La Raza gamely averred that “there’s no relationship between immigration and terrorism.” Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (and former head of the Palestine Solidarity Committee), echoed that sentiment: “I don’t think the events of last week can be attributed to the failure of our immigration laws.”

And indeed, to argue that cuts in legal immigration are necessary for homeland security might appear a bit opportunistic, like apologists for farm subsidies talking about “food security.” After all, it’s only Muslim fanatics, not Mexican dishwashers or Filipino nurses, who are engaging in terrorism.

But there are two compelling reasons that a reduction in the legal admission of foreign citizens is imperative for homeland security. The first reason is a very practical one: The INS simply cannot function as it should at the current level of admissions.

Now, one might argue that more INS funding would solve this problem; and that is, in fact, what Congress and the administration have in mind. The agency’s budget this year will be $5.5 billion, a 10 percent increase. This additional funding would be desperately needed even without concerns over homeland security. The General Accounting Office reported in May 2001 that the receipt of new applications (for green cards, citizenship, temporary work permits, etc.) has increased 50 percent over the past six years and the backlog of unresolved applications has quadrupled to nearly 4 million. The number of citizenship applications filed in the 1990s was about 6.9 million, triple the level of the 1980s; temporary admissions nearly doubled in the 1990s, to more than 30 million; and the number of (very labor-intensive) applications for asylum in the 1990s was nearly 1 million, more than double the level of the 1980s.

The crush of work has created an organizational culture wherein “staff are rewarded for the timely handling of petitions rather than for careful scrutiny of their merits,” in the words of a January 2002 GAO report. The pressure to move things through the system has led to “rampant” and “pervasive” fraud, with one official estimating that 20 to 30 percent of all applications involve fraud. The GAO says, in its understated fashion, that “the goal of providing immigration benefits in a timely manner to those who are legally entitled to them may conflict with the goal of preserving the integrity of the legal immigration system.”

There might well be large organizations that could handle such a crush of work while assuming vast new responsibilities, especially if they are provided with increased resources. But the INS is not just any government bureaucracy: It’s a total backwater, the Rodney Dangerfield of federal agencies. Its computer systems are abysmally out-of-date and fragmented; this stems from a decision in the 1970s not to automate the files, in order to preserve low-level clerical jobs. A serious government agency would not have been allowed to paint itself into such a corner. As then-Commissioner Doris Meissner told Government Executive magazine in 1999, “You don’t overcome a history like that in four to five years.”

There have been various plans to address this problem through reorganization; but such plans, even backed by a fat bankroll, won’t suffice. The only way to give the INS the breathing room it needs to put its house in order—and to address homeland security concerns—is to reduce its workload. Some demands on the agency cannot be reduced: Tourists will keep coming, legal immigrants will keep applying for citizenship. But the admission of new immigrants and foreign students and workers is an area where the INS’s load can be lightened dramatically. Cutting legal immigration back to the spouses and minor children of American citizens, plus a handful of genuine Einsteins and authentic refugees, and reducing the current caps (or placing caps for the first time) on various student and worker visas would provide the essential breathing room needed if the INS is ever going to fulfill its role in homeland defense.

Assimilation First and Foremost

There is also an important long-term strategic reason to cut the overall number of immigrants. Immigrant communities act as the sea within which, to borrow Mao’s phrase, terrorists can swim like fish. A New York Times reporter wrote shortly after Sept. 11 that there are many reasons Islamic terrorists prefer Germany as a base, “among them the fact that the terrorists could blend into a society with a large Muslim population and more foreigners than any other in Europe.” Another Times story observed that this is true in our own country as well: “The hijackers’ stay [in Paterson, N.J.] also shows how, in an area that speaks many languages and keeps absorbing immigrants, a few young men with no apparent means of support and no furniture can settle in for months without drawing attention.”

Promoting the Americanization of immigrants by reducing the ongoing flow of newcomers would help reduce the prevalence of community characteristics that allow terrorists to operate with relative impunity—transiency, inability to speak English, attachment to old loyalties and prejudices, and mistrust of the new country’s institutions (such as the police). It’s not that Muslim immigrant communities are willingly shielding terrorists, but rather that the insularity of immigrant communities provides cover for the terrorists.

In his address to the joint session of Congress after Sept. 11, President Bush said that “al-Qaeda is to terror what the Mafia is to crime.” This comparison is instructive. While immigration was ongoing, and for at least a generation after it was stopped in the 1920s, law enforcement had very little luck in penetrating the Mafia—in fact, the very idea of organized crime, as opposed to scattered urban gangsters, was dismissed. But with the end of immigration, the assimilation of Italian immigrants and their children accelerated, with more widespread use of English, gradual erosion of Old World attitudes like omerta (the code of silence), dispersion out of ethnic enclaves, and the development of a sense of real membership and ownership in America. It was this process—what the Hudson Institute’s John Fonte has called “patriotic assimilation”—that drained the waters within which the Mafia had been able to swim. This allowed law enforcement to do its job more effectively, and resulted in the eventual crippling of the Mob. In the same way, accelerating assimilation in Muslim immigrant communities by reducing immigration will make it harder for terrorists to operate there—harder to find cover, harder to recruit sympathizers, harder to recruit sympathizers, harder to raise funds.

And it’s clear that Osama bin Laden has been working to get immigrants to join him, with some success. The San Francisco Chronicle last November detailed the story of two naturalized U.S. citizens from Egypt who were part of al-Qaeda. The reported quoted an Arabic-language newspaper account about the two men: “Bin Laden praised their efforts and emphasized the necessity of recruiting as many Muslims with American citizenship as possible into the organization.”

But is the development of ethnic criminal gangs a sufficient rationale for reducing immigration? After all, we also have Russian organized crime in our country, brought by immigrants, and other ethnic gangs. But here’s the key: Terrorism is not ordinary criminal activity. Its goal is not localized and digestible, as a modest level of crime in such a large society; it is, rather, an extremely broad-based undermining of our national security, a threat to our very survival—and thus a matter of overriding importance.

Keep Them Out – And Dry Them Up

Limiting immigration from the Islamic world would not only deprive terrorists of domestic cover, but would actually impede terrorism worldwide. This is because radical Islamist groups have broad freedom to operate in only two kinds of places—in weak states (like Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen) and in the West. Donald Rumsfeld is making real progress on the first problem; immigration cuts are needed to address the second.

We could, of course, simply bar all immigrants and tourists from Muslim countries. But there are two problems with this. The first is that trying to bar arrivals from Muslim countries isn’t likely to keep out terrorists. As it is, applicants from countries formally listed as sponsors of terrorism have long faced a higher bar to entry, so the Sept. 11 terrorists came from Muslim countries not on the official list. Now that we are focusing more scrutiny on most Muslim-majority countries, we are likely to see terrorists coming from countries with large and aggrieved Muslim minorities—the Philippines, India, China, Russia. In the unlikely event we were to bar everyone from those countries, then the terrorists would use Muslim citizens of Western Europe and Canada; this is likely to be especially troublesome, since visas are not required for citizens of these countries.

But there is an even greater question, one of principle. Special exclusions for Muslim immigrants would be a throwback to the national-origin quotas of the 1920s, the elimination of which was the only positive aspect of the hapless 1965 immigration-law changes. Focusing on Muslims is sensible as triage, as a way to decide where to start enforcing the law, as the Justice Department is doing with the 6,000 Middle Eastern deportation absconders. But constructing, for the long-term, a Muslim-specific immigration policy would be contrary to American principles and politically out of the question. Our response, then, can only be to cut immigration across the board, regardless of the religion the immigrant claims to profess.

It has been clear for some time that current immigration policy is an anachronism, because of the harm it inflicts on the private economy, the public fisc, and overall national cohesion. But the Sept. 11 attacks have made change a much graver matter. Cuts in legal immigration would contribute to improved security by permitting more efficient management and by denying terrorists cover. We should not fail to act.

Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.