In recent years, public fears related to terrorism, refugees, and criminality have grown, raising concerns about the effectiveness of the immigration system in keeping U.S. citizens safe. Incidents involving foreign-born individuals, crime, or weapons that have crossed borders have prompted an array of responses, the most extreme of which include calls to seal borders, end all refugee resettlement, and restrict the entry of people from areas of the world that might pose some risk.
On the heels of terrorist attacks in Orlando, Brussels, San Bernardino, and Paris, for example, some voices have called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” suggesting the government should enter a “wartime lockdown” and enact a complete “immigration moratorium.” The threat from extremists and criminals who wish to do harm to Americans is real and concern is justified. However, the level of fear being expressed is leading to proposals for extreme “fixes” that can do more harm than good.
The level of fear being expressed is leading to proposals for extreme “fixes” that can do more harm than good.
Immigration has a significant role to play in supporting national security priorities, and the current systems screen millions of visitors, immigrants, and refugees to keep threats out of the country. This includes interdicting narcotics, preventing the entry of criminals and terrorists, and apprehending unauthorized immigrants. U.S. immigration agencies share intelligence and cooperate with dozens of federal, local, and international law enforcement and security agencies and analyze millions of pieces of information about travelers, cargo, and vessels in real time. Updated immigration laws, if implemented via much-needed immigration reform, could build upon this strong system, greatly improving border security and interior enforcement systems and infrastructure.
Nonetheless, reducing the role of immigration policy to the simple notion of border security and restricting the entry of large groups of people—if not all immigrants—in a futile attempt to reduce to zero the risk to the nation is both economically impractical and counterproductive to the goal of safety and security. The United States’ power and influence in the world is extended through cultural, educational, and personal exchanges. Its history of immigration has helped it to become the example of how integration of diverse peoples can create the strongest and most prosperous country in the world. Steps to address security concerns must be balanced against these national interests as well.
For example, significantly restricting immigration in the name of security could have significant negative impacts to the country. Legal travel, trade, and immigration generate hundreds of billions of dollars for the economy every year. Moreover, closing the country’s authorized and vetted channels for travel, commerce, and immigration may push these economically essential activities into informal or illegal routes, which are by definition uncontrolled, further compromising national security.
In terms of foreign policy, proposals to curtail or place a moratorium on refugees would abrogate U.S. commitments under international treaties, and banning entry of Muslims or others from regions of the world that have experienced terrorism (including Europe) could cause reciprocal bans against U.S. citizens and commerce, further eroding relationships and alliances that are needed to work against terrorist and criminal organizations. Additionally, such actions feed into the rhetoric of extremists that the United States is at war with Islam, further undermining the work of security agencies.
The United States needs pragmatic, sensible approaches to immigration that will improve the nation’s security while balancing its role in other key national interests. Immigration policies and systems play an important role in supporting a broader national security agenda—and further reforms to secure the border and foster safety should recognize that balance.