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Are Immigrants a Homeland Security Risk?

Discussants: James Jay Carafano, and Mark Krikorian, Executive Director, Center for Immigration Studies
Updated: November 2, 2007

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Homeland security isn’t necessarily the first thing that springs to mind when considering the debate over immigration in the United States. But with the international terrorist threat a priority for U.S. policymakers, some experts argue immigration leaves the homeland vulnerable. Others say that while security is a legitimate concern, immigration is not the problem.

James Carafano, a security expert at the Heritage Foundation, and Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, debate the security risks immigrants pose to the United States.


Mark KrikorianMost Recent

Mark Krikorian

November 2, 2007

Mass Immigration Hurts Modern Society

I don’t share Jim’s confidence that a guest worker program can be crafted that meets his common-sense criteria—partly because none ever has. In addition, the various business interests and ethnic-chauvinist groups that push for open borders will never—can never—agree to the reasonable requirements Jim and his colleagues at the Heritage Foundation have spelled out. Doing so would vitiate the benefits they see from importing foreign labor in the first place—holding down the wages of American workers, shifting much of the cost of “cheap” labor onto taxpayers, and ensuring that a large portion of the workers stay permanently.

The old saw is still true today: There’s nothing as permanent as a temporary worker.

Jim’s other three recommendations to Congress, though, are hard to argue with: reject amnesty, enforce the law, and make sure the administration of our immigration system is efficient. But I have to come back to my original point that mass immigration is incompatible with the goals of a modern society. Guest worker programs inevitably promote illegal immigration, which creates political pressure for amnesty. Large-scale immigration of any kind overwhelms our ability to screen newcomers with the kind of attention to detail that modern threats demand. People willing to leave their countries in large numbers are inevitably going to be relatively poor and less-educated, and thus place a disproportionate burden on the government services provided by a modern society.

It would be simply false to point to a random immigrant and say “He’s a homeland security risk”—but immigration is indeed a homeland security risk in the modern world. If we follow the road we’re currently on, where we continue to admit more than one million legal immigrants and another million “temporary” workers each year, we will find that the tighter enforcement measures Jim and I both support will never be enough.

By all means, we should oppose amnesties like the DREAM Act and the AG JOBS bill, work to stop states like New York from giving driver’s licenses to illegal aliens, and generally demand that all levels of government “do sensible things to get our broken southern border and a dysfunctional immigration system back under control,” as Jim notes.

But these are tactics shared by two different strategies. One strategy seeks to continue mass immigration but manage it better; it cannot succeed. The other acknowledges that it’s not 1907 anymore, and thus the large-scale admission of foreign workers and residents has very different effects from the past, and cannot be managed in a way “that keeps America safe, free, and prosperous.”


James CarafanoJames Carafano

November 1, 2007

Time to Act

Mark and I are back to agreeing again: that governments—federal, state, and local—should do sensible things to get our broken southern border and a dysfunctional immigration system back under control, and do it in a way that keeps Americans safe, free, and prosperous.

I also think we agree on what is the wrong way to do that. In the 1986 reform bill, Congress granted wholesale amnesty and then promised to enforce the law, secure the border, and create adequate temporary worker programs to support the needs of a growing economy. In the end, Congress granted an amnesty—and then very little else was accomplished. The temporary worker programs proved unworkable. Workplace enforcement was anemic and border security never kept pace with the problems of illegal border crossing. As a result, there were about 2.5 million people unlawfully here in 1986. Today, there is probably at least five times that number.

The massive immigration and border bill proposed in the Congress earlier this year followed the exact same formula as the 1986 measure and it would likely have failed to address America’s immigration challenges in much the same way. Congress was right to reject the proposal. Yet, there are those in Congress who still do not get it—trying to pass new “stealth” amnesty bills like the DREAM Act and the AG JOBS Act. This is just Washington at its worst.

Congress needs to stop the insanity and try something different—something that might actually solve the problem: (1) reject amnesty; (2) enforce the law and regain control of the nation’s southern border; (3) create adequate legal opportunities for individuals to come and work in the United States; and (4) make the immigration services that support legal programs efficient and effective.

Let’s be clear. Creating the right additional legal worker opportunities means more than just adding numbers. These programs must: (1) meet the needs of the marketplace; (2) respect the value of American citizenship, sovereignty, and the rule-of-law; (3) put health, security, and public safety checks at the front-end of the process, before people cross the border; and (4) not heap massive additional fiscal costs on state and local governments and federal entitlement programs. Much of this could probably be done through sensible reforms of existing visa programs and refined through the use of pilot projects to demonstrate that programs can be expanded in a manner that make sense for security, the economy, and civil society.

There is no practical alternative. America needs immigration and border policies that are fair, compassionate, and effective—anything less makes America less of a place.

Mark and I would not have to be having this debate if our leaders in Washington had not failed us so miserably on this issue over the last twenty years.

It is time to stop postponing, ignoring, avoiding—and debating. It is time to start implementing real, sensible solutions.   


Mark KrikorianMark Krikorian

October 31, 2007

Reducing Immigration Serves Security

I appreciate Jim’s effort at terminological accuracy—so yes, immigration is not a security “threat,” as he defines it. Rather, under modern conditions it presents an insuperable security “challenge” that must be met by reducing all immigration—legal and illegal—as much as is practical.

But as for specific first steps, Jim’s discussion of the REAL ID Act is right on the money. Contrary to Sen. Clinton’s assertion last night that New York Gov. Spitzer’s plan to give driver’s licenses to illegal aliens “makes a lot of sense,” Jim explains the need for tough federal standards for state licenses.

But the REAL ID Act doesn’t go far enough. Spitzer’s plan to establish a parallel illegal-alien driver’s license is actually permitted under the act. This is an important loophole because the point of federal standards for state IDs is to prevent people who aren’t supposed to be here from being able to use legitimate identification documents to embed themselves in our society. Although the act requires such special licenses to prominently say “Not for Identification Purposes,” it is clear that they will be used as ID; for instance, after Tennessee approved such a two-tier system several years ago, the state police immediately said they would accept the special licenses as identification anyway.

Washington twists the states’ arms for objectives that are none of the federal government’s business, like a state’s minimum drinking age or the speed limit on its roads. Yet Congress pulled its punch on identification standards when passing the REAL ID Act, telling states only that those documents that didn’t meet the standards (including verification of the holder’s legal status) would not be accepted for federally mandated purposes like boarding airplanes. Instead, the standards should be required for all state-issued ID at the risk of losing highway funding.

Finally, fears among some that these federal standards amount to establishment of a national ID card are missing the point. A modern, urban society requires a system of identifying people, and our country has evolved a decentralized, state-based system for doing that. This is consistent with our federalist principles and should be preserved if at all possible. But if we haven’t significantly—and credibly—tightened up the ID system before another terrorist attack takes place, the pressure for a single, centralized, national ID card will be irresistible.

Other initiatives like this that we should focus on: Penalizing municipalities that have “sanctuary” policies that prohibit cooperation with federal immigration authorities; restoring the principle of ideological exclusion, permitting our consular officers to deny visas to America-haters who haven’t actually killed anyone yet; and fully implementing the US-VISIT system to track the entry and exit of all foreign visitors.


James CarafanoJames Carafano

October 30, 2007

Smart Policies Bolster Security

Mark and I agree on a good deal, particularly on how to deal with the immigration challenges facing the United States—enforcing immigration laws, strengthening security on our Southern border, denying entitlements and other benefits to individuals unlawfully present in the country, denying amnesty to persons who violated U.S. immigration laws, and protecting the sanctity and importance of citizenship.

We should be very clear, however, on what constitutes a “national security” threat. Threats are people (whether they represent states or non-states) that want to kill Americans or destroy our way of life through the use or threat of violence for political purpose. National security threats are not illegal immigrants, zebra mussels, bird flu, forest fires, energy companies, foreign currency exchange, criminals, lead-coated toys, or other vexing transnational challenges. These are problems to solve. When we blithely start labeling them as national security issues, Washington will start finding all kinds of reasons to curb our liberties, squelch free markets, and spend vast amounts of tax dollars.

Where I am sure we both agree is that where there are clear dual-benefits to public policies that can help make America more safe, more free, and more prosperous, we ought to jump on them. One good example, I think, was the passage of the REAL ID Act which requires national standards including:

  • Requiring individuals obtaining driver’s licenses or personal identification cards to present documentation to establish identity, including U.S. nationality or lawful immigration status, and then verifying the validity of the documents;
  • Establishing physical security features for ID cards to prevent tampering, counterfeiting, or fraud;
  • Requiring standardized information on identity credentials, such as a full and complete name;
  • Implementing security plans for state ID card issuance and computer systems, including employee background checks; and
  • Ensuring that states share information to combat fraud and other criminal activity.

These are imminently practical and reasonable measures. In addition, they establish no new requirement for the federal government to obtain or maintain additional information on individual citizens, nor will the federal government issue, control, or manage the systems for issuing identity documents. Finally, the requirement that states exchange data with each other and the federal government is neither unreasonable nor unprecedented. Forty-five states already have data-sharing agreements with each other.

National standards are not a silver bullet that will eliminate every security concern. On the other hand, implementing more secure documents and a more reliable issuance and management process will have tangible benefits, according to the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators.

We should focus on initiatives like this.


Mark KrikorianMark Krikorian

October 29, 2007

The Home Front Is the Real Front

“It is perhaps obvious to state that terrorists cannot plan and carry out attacks in the United States if they are unable to enter the country.”

So begins the report (PDF) on immigration prepared by the 9/11 Commission staff. This forms the basis of the disagreement between Jim Carafano and me.

He and I strongly agree on many of the specific immigration-enforcement steps we need to take, like full implementation of the check-in/check-out system for foreign visitors or prosecution of criminal gangs that smuggle aliens. Jim’s work at the Heritage Foundation has contributed greatly to moving the debate over illegal immigration in the right direction.

But when Jim makes the sweeping statement that “it is a mistake to argue immigration is a national security threat,” I have to differ with him. In wars past we talked of the “home front” only as a metaphor to help civilians develop a sense of solidarity with soldiers at the real front. In the modern world, however, the home front is the real front, and denying the enemy access must be one of our key defensive goals.

This is not a concern confined to radical Islam; because of advances in communications, transportation, and weaponry, all possible future enemies (North Korea, for example, or China) will seek to use our immigration system as a means of attacking our territory directly in a way that was simply impossible in the past.

Given this new security environment, there are two specific concerns with mass immigration. First, it overwhelms our ability to screen out malefactors. The promises made by Senate amnesty supporters this summer about how illegal aliens would be subjected to rigorous security screening and background checks were baloney. The immigration service is choking on immigration and isn’t able to properly vet the current flow of newcomers, let alone millions more.

The second concern is the way immigration creates and constantly refreshes the immigrant communities that serve as cover and incubators for potential enemies.

Jim is correct, of course, when he says that terrorists comprise only “a miniscule percentage” of immigrants, but the immigrant communities nonetheless serve as the sea, as Mao might have put it, within which the terrorists swim as fish.

Immigration is incompatible with modern society, including the economy, government spending, sovereignty, assimilation—and also security. Until we understand the underlying security problems created by immigration, the kinds of specific measures Jim and I agree on will always fall short of success.


James CarafanoJames Carafano

October 29, 2007

Immigration, Security, and All That

It is a mistake to argue immigration is a national security threat.

A discussion on the nexus between immigration reform, border security, combating terrorism, and other national security and public safety issues ought to start with the basics.

Border Basics

There is a serious, immediate, and persistent border security threat—the transnational criminal cartels fighting over control of the smuggling corridor that runs through 2,000 miles of border with Mexico. They make gaining operational control of the border nearly impossible. Criminal gangs have money, resources, smarts, and every reason to want make life easy for businesses running drugs, people, and other contraband north, and sending lucrative illicit arms south. Until this border war is under control, a safe southern border is not an option.

That said, dealing with illegal immigration has to be part of the solution. Serious criminals hide in the 500,000 individuals who illegally cross from Mexico each year. A significant drop in illegal crossings would allow law enforcement to focus resources on criminals victimizing people on both sides of the border. The unlawful presence of millions of undocumented workers in the United States fuels more illegal border crossings and makes the task of making the border safe that much more difficult.

Understanding Terrorism Travel

Terrorists have tried every conceivable means possible, both legal and illegal, to travel to and remain undetected inside the United States. The overwhelming number of documented cases involve coming to the United States through a legal point of entry. Terrorists have resided here lawfully and unlawfully. They include aliens and U.S. citizens. Taken all together they comprise a minuscule percentage of any group one could imagine—other than other terrorists: a miniscule percentage of international travelers, individuals from any foreign country, or any group living in America. Focusing on any particular group is like looking for a needle in a needle stack. The best way to combat terrorism and other transnational security threats is effective intelligence, surveillance, and counterterrorism investigations based on legitimate concerns.

Keeping America Safe, Free, and Prosperous

There are many economic, public safety, rule-of-law, and citizenship issues that cry out for addressing America’s broken southern border and inept enforcement of immigration law. These are serious issues that need to be addressed. Some reforms will have tangible security benefits. Immigration, however, is a positive factor in American life and not a security threat.

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