Sunday, July 01, 2007

Immigration and Terrorism

Politicians concerned about immigration, in particular illegal immigration to the U.S., routinely link the issue with control of terrorism; most recently, Rudy Giuliani did so in the context of a foiled terrorism plot in the U.K. His version would make some sense if he were actually proposing that the U.S. exclude Muslim immigrants; they are, after all, more likely recruits to Al Quaeda than immigrants of other religions.

But he isn't proposing that, and neither is anyone else. As they surely all know, illegal immigrants to the U.S. are typically from Latin America or East Asia, not places with large Muslim populations. Increasing their numbers may be a good or bad thing, but it isn't going to promote terrorism.

The remaining argument, always left vague, is "control of our borders." Presumably the theory is that an Al Queda operative is going to fly into Mexico, get himself smuggled across the Rio Grande, take a bus to Washington D.C. and blow something up. Why he should go to all that trouble when the U.S. has over fifty million legal foreign visitors a year is never explained. Does anyone believe that our customs agents can spot the terrorist needle in that haystack?

Am I missing a real argument for linking the two issues, or am I correct in suspecting that it's pure demagoguery?


Alex J. said...

If politicians wanted to "secure the borders" via immigration policy, they would increase legal immigration rather than reduce it. This would reduce the scope of illegal border crossing systems. Likewise, they should legalize drugs if they are worried about weapons being smuggled into the country through drug smuggling networks.

Anonymous said...

You posed a nearly identical question once in the past. I disputed another intelligent and impassioned (but, in my humble opinion, mistaken) discussant at length -- he seemed convinced that there was utility to such measures.

I regretfully conclude that some of the worst thinking on this topic may be something like a phobia. That is, I think there are many Americans who so irrationally fear both terrorism and the world beyond the U.S. borders that they endorse even obviously absurd attempts to link the two. It is possible that our legislators suffer from this same phobia.

Unknown said...

I don't know, but didn't most of the 9/11 terrorists come in through Canada?

jimbino said...


I think you live in a kind of ivory tower as far as your figure of 50 million visitors is concerned. I have not seen a breakdown of those figures, but I do know from my experiences in trying to invite Latin friends to merely visit for two weeks, that it is hard for them to get a visa if they don't have family in the USSA as well as a long-term steady job back home. Furthermore, they have to be a homeowner there, married and preferably with loads of children. Discrimination on the basis of sex, age, race, religion, national origin, marital status, family status and sexual orientation is rampant in the granting of visas.

The only way for an Amerikan to entertain a young Brazilian friend, for example, of either sex for a two-week visit would be to get married to the person, it seems!

There's no way in hell that a young man with no job whose last residence was a training camp will be granted a visa. Our visa policies serve well to exclude all youthful terrorist types from developing countries.

That being said, our granting of visas is full of holes: any foreign student can get a student visa; any European can come and stay for six months without a visa. If I were Bin Laden, I don't think I would have any trouble recruiting British youths, for example, to my terrorist cause in Amerika.

For real security, we would need to require visas of all Europeans and only allow in folks who are old and decrepit, along with their minor kids, to visit Disney World or study here.

David Friedman said...

Jimbino writes:

"There's no way in hell that a young man with no job whose last residence was a training camp will be granted a visa. ..."

How would we know that was his last residence? Assuming that Al Quaeda are at least minimally competent, they can surely obtain forged or stolen passports from someplace unsuspicious for their terrorists. The U.S. can control the issuance of U.S. passports, but not passports from everywhere else in the world.

..."any foreign student can get a student visa; any European can come and stay for six months without a visa."

And any terrorist can arrange to be a student or European for long enough to get across the border.

jimbino said...


My experience is with the problem Brazilian friends of mine have in getting a simple visa for a two-week trip to Orlando, FL. Our gummint requires that they present themselves in person at a US consulate, such as the one in Rio, where the line for visa seekers wraps around the block. They have to undergo a strenuous interview, and they generally will not be granted a visa unless they are traveling as a "nuclear family" with homeowner parents who have well established employment and residence. And no Brazilian has committed a terrorist act, though that didn't stop the Brits from killing an innocent Brazilian.

I conclude that future suicide bombers will come from London, not Rio. You're right: if you can get into Europe and obtain a forged passport, you're "home free." For security's sake, what would make sense is to bar all flights from Europe but let in with visas all the Indians, Chinese and Latins who want to come direct from their home countries! The alternative, of course, would be to subject all Europeans to the same stringent visa purgatory that the Cariocas endure. I fear that when the Europeans react, tit for tat, we'll return to a world in which every Amerikan will stand hours in line to get a visa to visit Europe. And no young single males will be allowed entry.

You live in a world of professors and students, all of whom get visas with less of a problem, even if from a developing country. Others who get visas more easily are priests, missionaries, musicians, artists and film-makers. This may not be well known to Amerikans, but it sure is to Al Quaeda.

Anonymous said...

Rudy's not a deep thinker--don't look for too much beyond demagoguery mixed with unspoken racism.

Herbert said...

I think that you prof. Friedman are fundamentally right, but just because the mentioned issues concern the US.
Here in Europe the problem is much more complicated: we have a large number of immigrants who enter our borders illegally and most of them are muslim provided with the lowest level of culture and the highest blind faith in radical islam: in other words, the perfect preys for terrorists recruiters.
Moreover, it's difficult to secure the border of a 25 countries that actually haven't already established a sound cooperation policy on immigration control.
FInally, the crucial weakness of Europe is the impossibility to disciminate even for national security reasons. It would be surely easier to block mainly the immigrants flows from islamic countries and to provide incentive to the eastern europe ones, but we simply cannot. So, the necessity to prevent terrorists entrance is actual, but perhaps I consider more appropriate Ron Paul's approach rather than Rudy's one: less money for troops and foreign military missions, more money for internal security. At least, such a statement seems much more libertarian to me.
greetings and congratulations for your outstanding "the machinery of freedom" I've just discovered, bought and read a few weeks ago.
Federico Parmeggiani, Italy

Anonymous said...

The 9/11 terrorists studied electrical engineering and learned to fly big airplanes. They are strongly motivated.

Immigration check is useful for filtering out atomic, biological, chemical bombs or TNT. There have been successful detections of bomb material on european airports.

There are scanners build for huge shipcontainers. These can be installed on border roads an scan everyone automatically.

Anonymous said...

The argument only makes sense if entering illegally via Mexico is currently the easiest path of entry for at least some would-be terrorists. It certainly would be for Mexican terrorists, but there aren't many of those. For non-Mexican terrorists, it's not clear. It could be that they would all opt for direct entry rather than going through Mexico (or Canada).

Anonymous said...

Pure demagoguery, and few are immune

Enforce visa rules. Immigration officials must track visa holders and deport anyone who overstays their visa or otherwise violates U.S. law. This is especially important when we recall that a number of 9/11 terrorists had expired visas.

this, is not Rudy, it's Ron Paul :-/

Anonymous said...

You are surely right that the immigrants and visitors most likely to be anti-American terrorists are Muslims. But trying to stop Muslims at our borders would be penny wise and pound foolish. The best way to reduce tensions between the Muslim world and America is to encourage cultural contact. A few terrorists might slip in along with millions of Muslims coming to Disney World or Harvard, but in the long run allowing in more Muslims would save lives by reducing hatred and fear on both sides.

Anonymous said...

Not to mention that it would be very difficult to ascertain with any degree of accuracy exactly what a person's religion is, if they don't want you to know.

I suppose the point is that a well-resourced terrorist is going to be able to get around plenty of barriers that are high enough to cause major inconveniece to ordinary people, who don't want to go to the trouble of getting a forged passport and/or a character referee and a supposedly secure job for the sake of a two week holiday.

These sorts of things aren't really that hard to get around if you are determined and well-resourced, but most people who want to visit for two weeks don't really have a particularly strong motivation.

Anonymous said...

If we can't prevent a million people and thousands of tons of drugs from illegally crossing the border, how can we expect to stop a known terrorist even if his face and fingerprints are posted at every immigration checkpoint? You can't deny that logic, but you can point out that it's not very relevant to the actual problems we face. We don't have to worry about well-known terrorists crossing our borders; an attack in the USA is much more likely to be carried out by the unknown recruits, while the more experienced terrorists sit back in safety in some foreign land. (Think Yasser Arafat, Bin Laden, etc.) With the resources they have, and since they're probably going to go through Europe in any case, it should be easier for them to get the right documentation for an entry visa than to somehow get to Mexico (which has pretty tight border control of their own) and then sneak across our border. Or they could take advantage of the considerably laxer Canadian security, and then cross a border that's much longer and hardly patrolled at all, in country where no one ever died of thirst.

So, the porous southern border would only be a significant security threat if we fixed all the others.

The second demagogic element here is that almost no one talking about securing the Mexican border is willing to consider changing the "supply side" - that is, reducing the incentive to smuggle people by issuing green cards to anyone without a criminal record, and reducing the incentive to smuggle drugs by legalizing and regulating them. We're not going to have a watertight border when thousands of the world's smartest criminals can get rich by finding or making a few holes in the border security, and a million people are pressing against the border looking for a chance to cross. Take away the reason for shipping those goods illegally and let the masses pass through checkpoints, and it would be controllable.

Anonymous said...

The letter "U" isn't in the name "Al-Qaida" or "Al-Qaeda." I have a tendency to just say AQ. Spelling AQ with a "U" is probably the most common misspelling I've seen on the internet. It's right up there with "teh" for "the" or "loose" for "lose."