Speeches

National Immigration Forum Annual Conference

By Daniel Griswold
February 1, 2002

National Immigration Forum Annual Conference

From the National Immigration Forum
Panel Discussion on Immigration and Border Security

My message today is simple: We should not allow the war on terrorism to be hijacked by those who would turn it into a war on immigration. Members of the Immigration Reform Caucus and writers in National Review have tried to hitch their anti-immigration agenda to legitimate concerns about border security in our post-9-11 world. But "border control" and immigration are two separate issues. The problem is not that we are letting too many people in but that the federal government has not been doing enough to keep the wrong people out.

It would be unfair and self-destructive to blame America’s immigration policy for what happened on September 11. Immigrants come to live and work and build a better life for themselves and their families. The terrorists did not come here as immigrants. They entered the country on temporary non-immigrant tourist and student visas. They didn’t apply to the INS for green cards or any other kind of permanent status.

Immigrants are only a small subset of the much larger pool of 30 million foreign nationals who enter the United States in a typical year. More than 95 percent enter as tourists or business travelers. Only 3 percent, or about one million, enter to immigrate, that is, to settle here permanently. We could reduce immigration to zero and it would do nothing for our national security.

It would be self-destructive because of the economic benefits that immigrants and international visitors bring to the United States.

  • Immigrants fill gaps in labor market, especially among both high and low-skilled occupations. During much of 1990s, the U.S. unemployment rate reached record lows during periods of relatively high immigration.
  • Immigrants offer a competitive advantage for the United States. They are a source of human capital and commercial contact with the rest of the world. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has testified about the economic benefits of immigration. Former New York Mayor Giulliani has spoken many times about how immigrants have helped to revitalize New York City.
  • The National Research Council found immigrants are a "significant positive gain" to U.S. economy of as much as $10 billion a year. The President’s Council of Economic Advisers estimates the annual gain to be even higher, at $14 billion, and that’s a gain we realize year after year.
  • Drastically reducing the number of foreigners who enter the United States each year would only compound the economic damage of September 11 while doing nothing to enhance our security. Whole sectors of the U.S. economy depend on foreign-born workers, high- and low-skilled alike, from Silicon Valley and Wall Street to hotels, restaurants, construction sites and farms. Foreign-born entries to the United States are down 24 percent from a year ago, turning the screw on the travel and tourism industries.

The bill now making its way through Congress, S. 1749, the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act, reflects an understanding that immigration is not to blame for September 11. Its solutions are aimed directly at the fundamental problem of keeping dangerous people out of the country. It contains the necessary reforms to make it more difficult for terrorists to enter the country or to plot terrorist acts if they do get in. By the way, most of the policies in this bill were suggested by the Cato Institute in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

But the bill is also commendable for what it does not contain: There is no moratorium or any other roll back of legal immigration. There is no mandatory national ID card for American citizens or permanent residents.

America’s border control system requires a reorientation of mission. U.S. immigration policy up until now has been obsessed with nabbing mostly Mexican-born workers whose only "crime" is their desire to work, save, and build a better life for their families. Those workers pose no threat to national security.

Our land border with Mexico is half as long as our border with Canada, yet before September 11 its was being patrolled by 10 times as many border agents as our northern border. On average, we were posting an agent every four miles on the Canadian border and over quarter of a mile on the southwestern border. On the northern border, there were 120,000 entries per year per agent compared to 40,000 entries on the southwestern border. This is all out of proportion to any legitimate national security fears. In fact, the northern border seems to be preferred by terrorists. Let’s remember that it was in December 1999 at a border crossing station in Washington state that a terrorist was apprehended with explosives that were to be used to blow up Los Angeles International Airport during the millennium celebrations.

At a February 2000 hearing, former Sen. Slade Gorten on Washington warned that "understaffing at our Northern border is jeopardizing the security of our nation, not to mention border personnel, while in at least some sections of the Southern border, there are so many agents that there is not enough work to keep them all busy."

We should stop expending scarce resources to hunt down Mexican construction workers and raid restaurants and chicken processing plants, and redirect our efforts to tracking potential terrorists and smashing their cells before they can blow up more buildings and kill more Americans.

Let me conclude where I began: It would be a perverse injustice to insinuate that immigrants are to blame for what happened on September 11. Immigrants come here because they love the American dream and want to live it; terrorists come here because they hate the American dream and want to destroy it.

We should not forget that hundreds of foreign-born workers died in the World Trade Center attack.

They included Yelena Belilovsky, an immigrant from Ukraine and mother of a 13-year-old son. She earned a masters degree in library sciences after arriving in the United States in 1993, and had recently been named vice president for information at a company in the World Trade Center.

And Shabbir Ahmed, an immigrant from Bangladesh, a waiter at the Windows of the World Restaurant who had lived in the United States for 20 years. He was working to put his three children through college.

And Roko Camaj, a 60-year-old immigrant from Albania who died doing a job that he loved but that few Americans would want—washing windows at the World Trade Center, sometimes suspended 107 stories above the ground.

To honor ALL victims of Sept. 11, to promote our economic prosperity, and protect ourselves from terrorism, the U.S. government must do more to apprehend terrorists while keeping our door open to peaceful, hard-working immigrants who come here to build a better life.

Daniel Griswold directs the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. This column is excerpted from his new book, Mad about Trade: Why Main Street America Should Embrace Globalization (Cato Institute, 2009).