The Security Costs of Immigration

By Mark Krikorian on February 1, 2003

American Outlook, February 2003

It is by now a truism that the world is getting smaller, bringing Paris and Tokyo closer to the United States than ever before.

Unfortunately, Kandahar, Medellin, and the Bekaa Valley are also much closer. The communications and transportation technologies that make this convergence possible are only going to become more advanced, making the United States increasingly vulnerable to both terrorist and criminal organizations from abroad.

To counter this threat, the United States must first distinguish between the two aspects of globalization - on one hand, the increased movement of goods, capital and ideas across national borders; and on the other hand, the increased movement of people. These two developments are regularly lumped together by those who argue for open borders, but they are fundamentally different. Televisions from Mexico, investment money from Britain, and music videos from India pose no security threat to a free, advanced society -- but the increased mobility of people does.

People, after all, are not inanimate objects, easily controlled and disposed of when their usefulness ends. They are human beings, with their own purposes and designs, and the only real source of security threats in any environment. And while we can develop technological means to screen out dangerous objects, we will never possess a window on men's souls allowing us to divine their intentions.

To put it another way, airliners and anthrax and suitcase bombs don't kill people - people kill people.

Globally Mobile

In 2002, there were more than 33,000,000 foreign-born residents living in the United States, approximately one-fifth of all the people worldwide living outside the country of their birth. But that's only one part of the phenomenon of population mobility. In 2001, in addition to granting permanent residence (green cards) to more than one million people, the United States also performed approximately thirty-three million inspections of foreign visitors (not immigrants) entering the United States legally through ports of entry - some of those inspections being of people who had entered more than once during that year. Add to that figure the cross-border commuters and Americans returning from abroad, and the number of border inspections conducted in 2001 surpassed 400,000,000.

American policymakers should take this amount of human traffic seriously as the security threat it is. Granted, the vast majority of this traffic is perfectly benign, but there are indeed terrorists and criminals overseas who would use this flow of people as cover to harm us. And although better technology, better intelligence, and better international cooperation are necessary, they are insufficient to make America secure from such threats. They will not do the job unless combined with reductions in the total number of people admitted to the country and changes in the criteria for the selection of those people.

There are two reasons for this, one administrative and one social. The administrative reason is that such an enormous flow of people makes it impossible for the government to devote adequate resources to keeping the bad guys out and removing those that get in. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)- and the State Department, which issues visas - have been notoriously ineffective at immigration control, and it is simply not credible to claim that we can significantly reform these tools in the midst of today's very high level of arrivals from overseas. Even the move of most immigration functions to the new Department of Homeland Security, and the division of those functions between enforcement (such as border patrol and airport inspections) and services (granting green cards, citizenship status, and so forth) will not be of much help without reductions in the workload.

But let us suspend our disbelief for a moment and ask the deeper question, namely whether there are factors inherent in globalization that make the mass movement of people a security threat? Here we come to the social reason for reducing the movement of people into the United States.

Globalization - understood as the unfolding implications of advanced communications and transportation technologies - fosters the creation of transnational communities, which impede the kind of deep assimilation that undergirds national cohesion and fosters genuine loyalty. These poorly assimilated communities (within the United States and other countries), which globalization both creates and keeps connected to their overseas counterparts, serve as the sea within which terrorists and criminals can swim as fish, to borrow an image from Mao.

Of course, this is nothing new: immigrant communities have always been home to gangs of bad guys (though, interestingly, some research suggests that individual immigrants may be less likely than natives to be criminals). The Italian criminal organizations that cropped up in the United States early in the last century are the best-known examples, but there were prominent Jewish and Irish gangs as well. During the great wave of immigration near the turn of the twentieth century, and for more than a generation after it was stopped in the 1920s, the Mafia flourished and law enforcement had very little success penetrating it. This was because immigrants had little stake in the larger society, lived in enclaves with limited knowledge of English, were suspicious of government institutions, and clung to Old World prejudices and attitudes like "omerta" (the code of silence).

Thus it should be no surprise that similar problems exist today, with immigrant communities exhibiting characteristics that shield or even promote criminality. For instance, as criminologist Ko-lin Chin has written, "The isolation of the Chinese community, the inability of American law enforcement authorities to penetrate the Chinese criminal underworld, and the reluctance of Chinese victims to come forward for help all conspire to enable Chinese gangs to endure." In addition to the Chinese, William Kleinknecht, author of The New Ethnic Mobs (1996), documents Russian, Latin American, and other criminal organizations using immigrant communities for cover and sustenance.

The greatest threat was alluded to by President Bush in his address to the joint session of Congress after the 9/11 attacks: "Al Qaeda is to terror what the Mafia is to crime." The role - however unwilling in most cases - of today's immigrant communities as hosts for terrorists is clear. A New York Times story observed about Paterson, N.J., "The hijackers' stay here 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." ("A Hub for Hijackers Found in New Jersey," New York Times, September 27, 2001).

Lying in Wait

Nor is the role of the immigrant community always merely passive. Two of the September 11 hijackers - Nawaf Alhamzi and Khalid Almihdhar - had been embraced by the Muslim immigrant community in San Diego. As The Washington Post noted, "From their arrival here in late 1999 until they departed a few months before the September 11 attacks, Alhazmi and Almihdhar repeatedly enlisted help from San Diego's mosques and established members of its Islamic community. The terrorists leaned on them to find housing, open a bank account, obtain car insurance -- even, at one point, get a job." ("Hijackers Found Welcome Mat on West Coast; San Diego Islamic Community Unwittingly Aided Two Who Crashed Into Pentagon," Washington Post, December 29, 2001).

Even more threatening than the role immigrant enclaves play in simply shielding terrorists is their role in recruiting new ones. The San Francisco Chronicle described naturalized U.S. citizen Khalid Abu al Dahab as "a one-man communications hub" for al Qaeda, shuttling money and fake passports to terrorists around the world from his Silicon Valley apartment. According to the Chronicle, "Dahab said bin Laden was eager to recruit American citizens of Middle Eastern descent." When Dahab and fellow terrorist and naturalized citizen Ali Mohammed (a U.S. army veteran and author of al Qaeda's terrorist handbook) traveled to Afghanistan in the mid-1990s to report on their efforts to recruit American citizens, "bin Laden praised their efforts and emphasized the necessity of recruiting as many Muslims with American citizenship as possible into the organization."

Perhaps the most disturbing example so far of such recruitment in immigrant communities comes from Lackawanna, New York, where six Yemeni Americans - five of them born and raised in the United States to immigrants parents - were arrested in September 2002 for operating an al Qaeda terrorist sleeper cell. The alleged ringleader of the cell, also born in the United States, is believed to be hiding in Yemen. The six arrested men are accused of traveling to Pakistan last year, ostensibly for religious training, and then going to an al Qaeda terrorist training camp in Afghanistan. The community that bred this cell is made up largely of immigrants and is intimately connected to its home country. As the Buffalo News put it: "This is a piece of ethnic America where the Arabic-speaking Al-Jazeera television station is beamed in from Qatar through satellite dishes to Yemenite-American homes; where young children answer 'Salaam' when the cell phone rings, while older children travel to the Middle East to meet their future husband or wife; where soccer moms don't seem to exist, and where girls don't get to play soccer C or, as some would say, football."

Nor is this likely to be the last such cell uncovered. As another story in the Buffalo News reported, "Federal officials say privately that there could be dozens of similar cells across the country, together posing a grave danger to national security. They believe that such cells tend to be concentrated in communities with large Arab populations, such as Detroit."

In considering what to do about all this, the lessons of the past aren't entirely applicable. With the end of mass immigration, and in the absence of cheap and easy trans-Atlantic links, the assimilation of Italian immigrants in the early twentieth century accelerated, and immigrants - offspring developed a sense of genuine membership and ownership in America -- what John Fonte has called "patriotic assimilation" (see John Fonte' s article in this section). It was this process that drained the waters within which the Mafia had been able to swim, allowing law enforcement to do its job more effectively, and eventually cripple the organizations.

Thirty years ago, anthropologist Francis Ianni described this process: "An era of Italo-American crime seems to be passing in large measure due to the changing character of the Italo-American community," including "the disappearance of the kinship model on which such [Mafia] families are based." Ianni continued, "After three generations of acculturation," Ianni continued, "this powerful pattern of organization is finally losing its hold on Italo-Americans generally -- and on the crime families as well." Kleinknecht, in The New Ethnic Mobs, argues that the same could happen today in other immigrant communitites: "If the mass immigration of Chinese should come to a halt, the Chinese gangster may disappear in a blaze of assimilation after a couple of decades."

Maybe, but globalization has changed the terms of assimilation, making such an outcome much more difficult. In the past, it was all but impossible to live in two countries simultaneously, which forced most newcomers to put down permanent roots. Of course, immigrants in the past tried to maintain ties with the old country, but the cost and difficulties involved were such that the ties tended to atrophy fairly quickly. As Princeton sociologist Alejandro Portes observes, "Earlier in the twentieth century, the expense and difficulty of long‑distance communication and travel simply made it impossible to lead a dual existence in two countries. Polish peasants couldn't just hop a plane or make a phone call, for that matter, to check out how things were going at home over the weekend."

But now, with low-cost long-distance rates and air fares, a transnational life is available to the masses. Wellesley Sociologist Peggy Levitt has even described what she calls a "transnational village," a community split between the original village in the Dominican Republic and its doppelganger in Boston. Political parties operate in both places, people watch the same soap operas, telephone contacts become ever more frequent as rates fall, gossip travels instantly between the two halves of the village, parents in one half try to raise children in the other.

Another notable example is Jesus R. Galvis, a Colombian immigrant who started a business in New Jersey, became an American citizen, and eventually got elected to the Hackensack City Council (He's still there). In 1998, he ran for the Senate - the Colombian Senate. Had he won, he would have held elective office in two nations simultaneously, a first in American history. In 2000, at least three Mexican immigrants living in the United States ran for local political offices in Mexico, a phenomenon likely to proliferate wildly in the wake of Mexico's passage of a law permitting dual nationality and the fact that within the next few years immigrants living in the U.S. will be able to vote in Mexican elections.

Hyphenated at Best

This process, repeated all across America by immigrants from many different countries, is blurring the distinction between immigrants and sojourners. As such, it is aiding the transformation of the United States from a unified nation, which admitted immigrants in order to make them full members of the national community, into merely "one node in a post-national network of diasporas," in the words of University of Chicago anthropologist Arjun Appadurai.

The effects of this "network of disaporas" trend in globalization is evident in recent research done on national self-identification. The aforementioned Professor Portes, with Ruben Rumbaut of Michigan State, recently published Legacies: The Story of the Immigrant Second Generation (2001), the product of a multi-year longitudinal study of thousands of children of immigrants in San Diego and South Florida. Most interesting for our purposes was their analysis of how these young people identified their nationality, something they were asked when they started high school and again when they were finishing.

When first surveyed, the majority of the students identified themselves as Americans in some form, either as simply "American" or as a hyphenated American (Cuban-American, for instance, or Filipino-American). After four years of American high school, barely one-third still identified themselves in this way; the majority choosing an identification with no American component at all, opting for either a foreign national-origin identity (Cuban, Filipino) or a racial identity (Hispanic, Asian).

A rare study of the identifications of Muslim immigrants wasn't any more reassuring. Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, an Iranian doctoral student at Harvard, found that the Muslim immigrants he surveyed were at least more likely likely to feel "closer ties or loyalties" to Islamic countries than to the United States. Similarly, the 2002 (U.S.) National Survey of Latinos, released in December by the Pew Hispanic Center, found that even among the grandchildren of Hispanic immigrants, only 57 percent thought of themselves as primarily American.

What to do? The solutions already undertaken, though insufficient, are a first step. Better identification systems, greater scrutiny of money transfers, more attention by intelligence and law-enforcement agencies to penetrating terrorist and criminal groups are all necessary measures. In addition, there are steps we can take to better ensure that those who move to our society learn to love America, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others, as long as they live. Improved American history education, as championed by President Bush, is a must, as are efforts to raise the standards for naturalization and curb radical multiculturalism.

Ultimately, however, America's security in a globalized world depends on the curtailment of the mass admission of people, especially from less-developed societies where terrorist and criminal organizations are more likely to flourish. There are three groups to consider, each progressively larger: immigrants, long-term visitors, and short-term visitors.

Reducing the permanent settlement of people from abroad is perhaps the easiest of these to accomplish. Limiting immigration to the spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens, plus a handful of genuine geniuses and our share of authentic refugees facing certain death, would reduce the flow from more than 1 million to perhaps 350,000 - still a substantial number, but about as low as it can realistically go.

The arrival of long-term "temporary" visitors - mainly students and workers of various sorts - should be curtailed. Most categories of visas for such visitors have no caps at all, and the numbers admitted have been increasing rapidly. In 2001, we issued 1.2 million long-term "temporary" visas - more than the total number of green cards issued. If reducing this number causes some temporary shortfalls in the number of skilled workers available to American employers, it is a price worth paying for the significant increase in national security it will bring.

Finally, short-term admissions should also be curtailed. Half of the people inspected at America's borders last year - approximately 230 million - were foreigners coming here for short periods of time. It would be impractical to impose numerical limits on tourism, but a properly functioning system that required visas for all travelers (visitors from certain countries currently don't need visas) and actually rejected applicants likely to remain here, would reduce this flow.

Most of these millions are commuters, however, crossing the border five days a week to go to work. Finding a way to limit those numbers is especially important, because it will do the most good in reducing the burden on INS inspectors, allowing them to focus more attention on the remaining crossers. One overlooked approach would be to limit development along the northern and southern land borders as much as possible, to limit the growth in cross-border commuting. One way to do this would be for the federal government to buy all the land it can along the border at the edges of built-up areas, to prevent the spread of cities and town along the border.

Somehow, we must address the conflict between our country's security and the mass movement of people made possible by globalization. Either we will reduce the flows from abroad or we will have to resign ourselves to the spread of increasingly intractable security threats, whether from Muslim terrorists or Russian mobsters. It is ironic that the very globalization that makes mass movements of people possible also makes these movements more dangerous than ever before. But it is an irony with deadly implications.