Immigrants and National Security

An interesting thing happened to public attitudes about immigration after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001—they changed little. Contrary to early fears, no great backlash against foreigners occurred. The vocal minority championing closed borders and a crackdown on illegal immigrants has no more influence today than it had on Sept. 10, 2001.

For a brief time after Sept. 11, Americans did support limiting immigration. Since then, however, support for immigration has returned to pre-attack levels.

A December 2001 CBS News/New York Times poll found that more than half of Americans believe immigrants contribute to this country, up from 29 percent in 1994. According to a June 2002 Gallup Poll, a majority of the public believes that immigration is good for the country.

Americans still worry about their security and about the high rates of illegal immigration. In general, however, they do not conflate the two. The public has some sympathy for those who entered the country illegally and is reluctant to single out for punishment or deportation people who are working hard and otherwise abiding by the nation’s laws.

All the more troubling then that some of the most reactionary thinking on immigration has emanated not from the public at large, but from Attorney General John Ashcoft’s Justice Department.

For his part, President Bush deserves some credit for the absence of a backlash against immigrants. No surprise there since his instincts on the subject have always been good. During the 2000 presidential campaign, he made a point of ignoring the anti-immigrant voices in his own party. Family values, he often pointed out, don’t stop at America’s borders.

In the wake of Sept. 11, Bush has urged Americans to live up to their values of tolerance and mutual respect. His recent trip to Detroit was one in a series of highly visible White House efforts to reach out to and reassure Arab and Muslim Americans, even at the risk of angering some voters.

But the attorney general has sounded an odd note in the president’s efforts to prevent foreigners from being demonized. Determined not to allow another terrorist attack, Ashcroft has proposed several initiatives that target immigrants without offering Americans much additional security in return.

For more than a year, Ashcroft has pushed plans to authorize the FBI and state and local police to arrest illegal immigrants. Previously, only specially trained INS officers were authorized to make such arrests.

This idea sounds sensible enough but is unlikely to add much to our security, and may even detract from it. All 19 Sept. 11 hijackers entered the United States legally, and 17 still had valid visas at the time of the attacks.

With so few visa-violating terrorists to find, police efforts will inevitably target ordinary illegal immigrants. This will have the perverse result of making it harder for police to earn the trust of immigrant communities. People worried that they will be questioned about their immigration status aren’t likely to provide law enforcement with information about criminals and terrorists operating in their midst.

Also troubling is Ashcroft’s ruling late last month that asylum-seekers and illegal immigrants can be held without hearing or bail on the grounds that they potentially threaten national security. How? Because keeping track of them diverts government time, money and attention away from homeland security.

But declaring entire categories of immigrants to be potential national security threats when other screening procedures exist to weed out criminals and terrorists is bad policy and a waste of taxpayer money.

Further, Ashcroft’s decision strains America’s already fraying asylum system. In 2002, cumbersome INS policies kept tens of thousands of legitimate refugees from claiming asylum in the United States. The Justice Department’s new policy will further undercut a program that has been a beacon of American democracy for a half century.

The new policy also raises questions about America’s commitment to civil liberties. The U.S. Constitution protects individuals from being held without formal charges and presumes their innocence until proven guilty. But Ashcroft’s ruling suggests that asylum-seekers and illegal immigrants have no such rights and are therefore more like the al-Qaeda enemy combatants housed at the U.S. base in Guantanamo.

President Bush should reconsider his attorney general’s initiatives. A wiser approach to tackling his legitimate concerns about illegal immigration would be to revive the initiative the White House was preparing in summer 2001 to overhaul the temporary work visa program for Mexican nationals. Worries about abuses of the refugee program can be better handled by enhancing the system of courts that hear asylum cases.

Steps such as these will make Americans more secure without needlessly jeopardizing American values. If President Bush takes these steps, the polls show that the American people will back him.