E.g., 09/25/2020
E.g., 09/25/2020

Immigration and U.S. National Security: The State of Play Since 9/11

Reports
April 2020

Immigration and U.S. National Security: The State of Play Since 9/11

The wide-ranging reforms that followed the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States significantly strengthened the national security capabilities of immigration agencies. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created to bridge gaps between the intelligence community and immigration functions. Yet, the restructuring was not comprehensive, and threats to national security continue to evolve. In addition, while the tendency to frame immigration policy through a security lens predates the Trump administration, this now routine practice clouds the picture of who and what pose a threat.

This report takes a critical look at the increasingly complex security threats U.S. immigration policy must manage—from public-health emergencies, such as the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, to the activities of transnational criminal organizations. It assesses the tools available to respond to these threats, and the successes and challenges to date in innovating as risks evolve. To do so, it traces the evolution of the country’s immigration and border control system, with a focus on how institutions and processes have developed since 9/11.

While the U.S. government has made important progress in shoring up weaknesses in its defenses at the nexus of immigration processes and national security, this analysis identifies a number of critical gaps that remain—from a need to more clearly define mission space, to effectively sharing information and transitioning to electronic-based systems. Under the Trump administration, resources and political will have also been steered away from core DHS national security missions, including disaster response, cyber security, and general policy and planning in favor of immigration enforcement measures focused on low-risk unauthorized migrants and asylum seekers. The challenge ahead, the author writes, is to “rebuild the department’s credibility at home and with foreign partners, while recalibrating resource allocations and strengthening its capacity to respond to and manage the most pressing national security threats.”

This report is part of MPI’s multiyear Rethinking U.S. Immigration Policy initiative, which aims to generate a big-picture, evidence-driven vision for the role immigration can and should play in America’s future. To learn more about the initiative and read related research, check out the initiative's home page.

Table of Contents 

1  Introduction

2  Defining the Link between Immigration and National Security
A. Changing Policy Backdrop
B. Changing Threats
C. The Need for Changing Responses

3  Evolution of U.S. Immigration Bureaucracy and Its Role in Protecting National Security
A. Principal Agencies and Their Functions
B. World Wars I and II Bring New National Security Functions
C. The Postwar Years
D. The Rising Terrorism Threat
E. 9/11 as a Catalyst for Change

4  The Post-9/11 World: Institutional Changes
A. U.S. Customs and Border Protection
B. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
C. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
D. U.S. Department of State: Bureau of Consular Affairs

5  The Post-9/11 World: Process Changes
A. Visa Waiver Program
B. Refugee Screening
C. Biometric Entry-Exit Controls
D. Managing Land Borders: Whither the Wall?

6  Conclusion