Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Congress and the administration have struggled to balance the need to secure our borders with the need to remain a free economy open to the world. The challenge confronting members of this subcommittee today is how to keep out dangerous goods and people and the money that supports them without sacrificing the benefits of international trade, investment, travel and immigration.
Long‐time opponents of immigration seized on September 11 to argue against legalization of Mexican migration, and in favor of drastic cuts in existing levels of legal immigration. But any connection between the September 11 attacks and illegal immigration from Mexico is non‐existent. None of the 19 hijackers entered the country illegally or as immigrants. They all arrived in the United States with valid temporary nonimmigrant tourist or student visas. None of them arrived via Mexico. None of them were Mexican. Sealing the Mexican border with a three‐tiered, 2,000-mile replica of the Berlin Wall patrolled by a division of U.S. troops would not have kept a single one of those terrorists out of the United States.
The problem is not too many immigrants. Immigrants who come to the United States to work and eventually settle are but a small subset of the tens of millions of foreign‐born people who enter the United States every year. In fact, on a typical day, more than 1 million people enter the United States legally by land, air, and sea through more than 300 ports of entry. In a typical year, more than 30 million individual foreign nationals enter the United States as tourists, business travelers, students, diplomats, and other temporary, nonimmigrant visa holders. Of those, perhaps 1.3 million will eventually settle here as permanent immigrant residents. In other words, less than 5 percent of the foreigners who enter the United States each year intend to immigrate in any sense of the word. The rest plan to stay here only a short time.
Yet up until September 11, 2001, the overriding focus of our border security policy was to keep people out who might stay beyond their visa or enter illegally in search of employment. If you recall, some of the September 11 hijackers were granted a visa without even being interviewed by our consulate personnel. Why? Because they were deemed to be low risk for staying in the United States to seek employment.
Our focus, one might say our obsession, with keeping Mexicans from crossing our Southwester border illegally has not served our national security interests. It has diverted resources and attention away from efforts to identify and keep out people who truly intend to do us harm.
The Southwest border is not a frontline on the war on terrorism. First, Mexicans themselves are not a national security threat. No Mexican national to my knowledge has been connected with Al Qaeda or any other international terrorist network. Mexicans almost universally come here to work. Second, international terrorists have not viewed the Southwestern border as a preferred means of entry. The Canadian border is more attractive. It’s twice as long, with far fewer border patrol personnel per mile. Middle Eastern nationals tend to stand out more in Mexican society than in Canadian society or at a typical international airport. Recall that it was at a port of entry at the Washington state/British Columbia border in 1999 that U.S agents apprehended Ahmed Ressam, one of the so‐called millennium bombers.
Why would potential terrorists incur the risks of sneaking across our Southwest border when other doors are more attractive? A special investigation by the Associated Press last November found that not a single terrorist suspect had been arrested trying to enter the United States across the Mexican border since the September 11 terrorist attacks. As border patrol agent Matt Roggow told the AP, “The people who are coming across [the Mexican] border are people who can only pay $1,500 to a smuggler. A terrorist can pay $30,000 or $40,000 and go to the northern border where we don’t have the resources to stop them.”
While we were guarding the back door in 2001 to make sure no Mexican immigrants entered our country illegally, we were neglecting the far larger barn door of temporary non‐immigrant visas through which all the September 11 hijackers entered.
Most members of Congress understand that willing workers from Mexico are not a threat to America’s national security. In May 2002, Congress overwhelmingly approved and President Bush signed the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002. We don’t say this very often at the Cato Institute, but that was a good piece of legislation. The bill was aimed at the right target — keeping terrorists out of the United States. Among its major provisions, the law:
Requires federal intelligence and law‐enforcement agencies to share data on suspected terrorists in a timely manner with the INS and the State Department;
Establishes a uniform database that can be accessed by consulate officials and border agents;
Requires that all travel and entry documents issued to aliens be machine‐readable and tamper‐resistant and include biometric identifiers;
Requires the advance forwarding of passenger manifests for all incoming commercial vessels and aircraft;
Bars issuance of nonimmigrant visas to aliens from countries that sponsor terrorism, unless approved by the Secretary of State; and
Requires U.S. colleges and universities to report the arrival, enrollment, and departure of foreign students.
All these are common‐sense provisions that, in hindsight, should have been in place long before 9–11. Notably absent from the bill were any provisions rolling back levels of legal immigration or bolstering efforts to curb undocumented migration from Mexico.
Members of Congress rightly understood, when crafting the legislation, that Mexican migration is not a threat to national security.
Indeed, legalizing and regularizing the movement of workers across the U.S.-Mexican border could enhance our national security by bringing much of the underground labor market into the open, encouraging newly documented workers to cooperate fully with law enforcement officials, and freeing resources for border security and the war on terrorism.
Real immigration reform would drain a large part of the underground swamp that facilitates illegal immigration. It would reduce the demand for fraudulent documents, which in turn would reduce the supply available for terrorists trying to operate surreptitiously inside the United States. It would eliminate most of the human smuggling operations overnight. The vast majority of Mexican workers who enter the United States have no criminal record or intentions. They would obviously prefer to enter the country in a safe, orderly, legal process through an official port of entry, rather than put their lives in the hands of unscrupulous smugglers. By entering legally through a temporary worker program, they could travel freely across the border for multiple visits home rather than incurring the risk and expense of re‐crossing the border illegally. As a consequence, legalization would drain the underground channels through which terrorists might try to enter the country.
Just as importantly, legalization would encourage millions of currently undocumented workers to make themselves known to authorities by registering with the government, reducing cover for terrorists who manage to enter the country and overstay their visas. Workers with legal documents would be more inclined to cooperate with law enforcement and provide evidence if they do not fear deportation. Furthermore, we would free up enforcement and border‐control resources to focus on protecting the American homeland from terrorist attack. Our Department of Homeland Security should concentrate its limited resources and personnel on tracking and hunting down terrorists instead of raiding chicken processing plants and busting janitors at discount stores.
Congress should respond to the leadership shown by President Bush and reform our dysfunctional immigration system. We need to create a legal channel for peaceful, hardworking people to enter our country temporarily — and to legalize those workers already here — so they can fill a whole range of jobs where the supply of domestic workers falls short of demand. Immigration reform would help our economy grow, it would reduce illegal immigration, and it would enhance the federal government’s ability to wage war on terrorism.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Department of Homeland Security, “Monthly Statistical Report” and Yearbook of Immigration Statistics.
Associated Press, “No terror suspects nabbed on border: But death toll rising among migrants along Mexican frontier,” November 3, 2003.
See Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act, Public Law No: 107–173.