Immigration: A National Security Threat?

Source: John Partipilo/Pool-AP; Matt York/AP; Ross D. Franklin/AP

Source: John Partipilo/Pool-AP; Matt York/AP; Ross D. Franklin/AP

By- Albaro Tutasig, Committee on U.S. Latin American Relations

The debate on immigration in the United States has, and continues to be, subject to a great deal of controversy. While mainstream news outlets often report statistics of immigrants being deported every year, they seldom make the clear distinction between the different sides of the immigration debate; not all who lobby against or for undocumented immigration are motivated by the same reasons.

Undocumented immigration resonates more strongly with some as an issue of national security. Opponents of immigration reform claim that “illegal” immigration, especially through the U.S. Mexican border, is a gateway to potential criminal activity and go so far as to connect immigration with terrorism.

It is argued that immigration came to be considered a matter of national security shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Following the attacks, the George W. Bush administration redefined the role of immigration agencies, including them in a strategy to combat terrorism. The newly created Department of Homeland Security took over jurisdiction of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), thus establishing immigrants as threats to internal security.

The current Senate bipartisan immigration bill, s.744, calls for an upgrade to border security. These upgrades include an increase in Border Patrol agents stationed along the U.S. Mexico border, doubling its size to at least 38,000 agents, and an investment in new security measures and technologies, such as surveillance towers, camera systems, ground sensors, drones, and other vehicles.

James A. Lyons, former commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations, wrote an article for The Washington Times condemning the lenient security along the southern border of the United States under the Obama administration. Lyons claims that this lack of security has facilitated the entry of illegal “aliens” of different terrorist organizations. He wrote, “The threat posed by Hezbollah and al Qaeda terrorist cells in South and Central America cannot be dismissed…” He backs his claim by referencing the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing—a bold statement, as the two men accused of the bombings had no affiliation with any terrorist group.

Lyons concludes his article by stressing the importance of increased border-security measures as part of any immigration bill, labeling such measures as a “key” national security element for protecting the United States and its citizens.

The argument that undocumented immigration is a threat to the security of the United States is also supported by the criminal activities that accompany the increasing number of people immigrating to the United States—in particular the rising numbers of individuals crossing the U.S.-Mexican border.

According to a Congressional Research Service report released in August 2012, revealed that over a 33-month period, about 159,000 undocumented immigrants were arrested by local authorities, but released shortly after. The report also showed that nearly one-sixth of previous detainees were arrested for crimes, mostly drunk-driving offenses, drug-crimes and felonies.

In 2012, Republican Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, then chairman of the House judiciary committee, criticized of what detractors have called a “catch and release” immigration policy: “Rather than protect the American people he was elected to serve, President Obama has imposed a policy that allows thousands of illegal immigrants to be released into our communities.” ICE claimed the policy was aimed at focusing limited resources on apprehending dangerous criminals.

Others claim that the connection between immigration and terrorism is a constructed and perceived threat rather than a real, objective danger. John Mueller, author of Is There Still a Terrorist Threat?: The Myth of the Omnipresent Enemy, argues that the absence of terrorist attacks in the United States is not a result of increased border control and stricter immigration policies, and that the threat of immigrants as terrorists has been exaggerated.

Daniel Griswold of the Cato Institute argues that terrorist attacks by foreigners are not a result of liberal immigration policies, but are a result of failure to keep out the small number of foreigners who do pose a threat. In his analysis Linking Immigrants and Terrorists: The Use of Immigration as an Anti-Terror Policy, Alexander Spencer argues that there is rarely a clear distinction between an “immigrant” and a “foreigner,” noting that those responsible for the September 11 attacks were not immigrants, but rather people who entered the United States with temporary visas.

Julia Tallmeister, author of Is Immigration a Threat to Security?, points out that politicians and the media have managed to stir up hostility towards immigrants, legal and undocumented, and therefore create a connection between immigration and terrorism—just as it has been done with portraying immigrants as a threat to societal and economic security.

Nevertheless, if a “connection” between terrorism and undocumented immigration does convince legislators to adopt a more intense militarization along the U.S. Mexico border, who would benefit from it? Theoretically, the safety of the American people is enough to rally patriotic support for this hypothetical. But what about third-party supporters of increased defense in the U.S. southern border?

According to a 2013 Washington Post article by Matea Gold, parent corporations of companies that manufacture arms and defense equipment, such as Northrop Grumman, have raised nearly $11.5 million for federal candidates’ campaigns to increase defense along the U.S.-Mexico border. Surely such parties would benefit. Nearly $4.5 billion is set-aside for defense contractors looking for a financial outlet after a reduction of U.S. presence in the Middle East. Roughly $46 billion will be spent on the border security package, as part of the Senate bill approved in 2013, which now awaits a vote in the House of Representatives.

Immigration is not a one-sided issue. In this brief overview we have analyzed immigration as an issue of national security–there are those who fear a link between immigration and terrorism, and those who disregard it as an exaggeration. Though it is no myth that there is criminal activity along the U.S.-Mexican border, many, including entities that may stand to benefit by increased defense spending in the region, have exaggerated connections between immigration policy and terrorism.

This article is part of the CUSLAR Summer/Fall 2014 Newsletter. To access this and previous newsletters, go to

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