Is a U.S. Immigration System Rebuilt after 9/11 Prepared to Tackle Ever-Evolving Security Threats, Including Pandemics? Report Assesses Successes, Gaps
WASHINGTON — The U.S. immigration system was dramatically reshaped by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which shone a harsh spotlight on weaknesses in visa and immigration screening processes. From the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to expanded national security protections in immigration and tourism policies, countless changes in the immigration arena have unfolded over the past 19 years. Yet the extent to which the federal government is postured to address continually evolving national and global security threats remains an open question—made all the more urgent as the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates.
In a new report for the Migration Policy Institute’s Rethinking U.S. Immigration Policy Initiative, former White House Deputy Homeland Security Advisor Amy Pope considers the range of increasingly complex security threats U.S. immigration policy must manage, the tools available to respond and successes as well as challenges in innovating as threats evolve. The report, Immigration and U.S. National Security: The State of Play Since 9/11, traces the evolution of an immigration and border control bureaucracy reshaped in the wake of 9/11 to respond to the most pressing issues of the day but torn in different directions from the outset and confronting evolving realities.
Noting the embrace of new technologies and risk management techniques; greater information sharing between intelligence, immigration and law enforcement agencies; increased cooperation with foreign governments; externalizing operations beyond the U.S. border; and unprecedented resources for federal immigration agencies, the U.S. government “ha[s] been able to successfully address many complex security threats,” Pope writes.
Yet serious challenges remain. And newer challenges, such as disease, loom. Among them: overlapping functions that have diluted some of the post-9/11 clarity of mission, a shift in focus to different priorities, the Trump administration’s prioritization over all other immigration issues of a border wall and narrowing of asylum, and, most importantly, lack of a mechanism to set government-wide policy and drive cooperation among agencies with immigration responsibilities.
“The U.S. government has made important progress in the nearly 20 years since 9/11 in shoring up gaps in its defenses at the nexus of immigration processes and national security,” the report concludes. “However, continuing on the path of misrepresenting migration-management imperatives as against true security threats risks undermining U.S. homeland security and leaving the country less able to counter the real national security challenges of the 21st century.”
Viewing immigrants and immigration functions chiefly through a security lens clouds the picture of who and what pose a national security threat. “Concerningly, the national security mission of many agencies with an immigration function is regularly conflated with and diluted by other functions, especially managing migration along the U.S.-Mexico border,” Pope writes. “Resources and political will have been steered away from core DHS national security missions, including disaster response, cyber security, protection against weapons of mass destruction and general policy and planning in favor of immigration enforcement measures focused on low-risk unauthorized migrants and asylum seekers.”
The report is the latest in the multi-year Rethinking U.S. Immigration Policy Initiative, launched in 2019. The initiative aims to generate a big-picture, evidence-driven vision for the role immigration can and should play in America’s future.
Read the report here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/immigration-us-national-security-since-911.
See earlier work in the Rethinking Immigration Initiative here: www.migrationpolicy.org/rethinkingimmigration.
To keep up with the latest developments in the Rethinking initiative, sign up for updates here.