Part of the series "Ten Lessons Since the 9/11 Attacks," in which CFR fellows identify the top threats and responses going forward. Read more in the series.
In a recent interview with a New Orleans radio host, I fielded a typical question: "How worried was I," the host asked, "about terrorists smuggling a dirty bomb across the border with Mexico and detonating it in the United States?"
I tried to explain why this was not a likely scenario, and certainly not one that required two thousand miles of steel fencing across the entire border with Mexico. But the whole discussion underscored how thoroughly the U.S. attitudes towards immigration were altered by 9/11. Before then, the debate was about the impact of immigration on the U.S. economy, its culture, and its laws; since then, the debate has been mostly about national security.
Reexamining U.S. immigration policy through the lens of national security has produced some welcome changes. All travelers to the United States must now present an authentic, secure piece of identification like a passport; no one will ever try again to cross a U.S. border by presenting a Costco card, as the failed millennium bomber Ahmed Ressam attempted to do. Most visitors are now fingerprinted as well, a double-check on identity. Incoming air passengers are checked against terrorist watch lists, and scrutinized for any terrorist ties. The visa application process is more thorough than the one that allowed all nineteen of the hijackers to acquire legal visas. And for the first time in U.S. history, Washington is undertaking a serious and sustained effort to halt illegal immigration.
But the tightening of nation's borders has also had damaging consequences. The United States has flipped from being one of the easiest countries in the world to enter--welcoming to tourists, students, business travelers, and immigrants--to becoming one of the most difficult. Ordinary travelers must run a gauntlet of security checks that send out a clear message that they are being greeted, at best, warily. The results have been predictable. Foreign students stopped coming in the same numbers, foreign investors looked for more welcoming markets, and tourists found other places for vacations. The would-be immigrants with choices--the smartest, most skilled, most adaptable--are finding other countries in which to build their careers.
The tragic thing about 9/11's impact on immigration policy is that most of the costs were avoidable. Careful screening for terrorists does not require treating everyone like a potential terrorist. And the perfect--a hermetically sealed border impervious to anyone who might threaten the United States--should never have become the enemy of the good. What is needed is an intelligent risk-management system that identifies and isolates most of those who are a threat while welcoming the vast majority of travelers and immigrants who are building the United States, not tearing it down.