Does restricting immigration really keep us safe from terrorism?

Every nation has a sovereign right to determine who gets in: immigration is still a net gain for us however.

This piece appeared in Homeland Security Today on February 4, 2020

HOMELAND SECURITY TODAY — It is an interesting question on when borders between states began to matter. I would think that this is a fairly recent phenomenon, for several reasons. First, the notion of a ‘nation state’ is not that old: some would cite the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia as the starting point. Secondly, it was not that long ago when most ‘nation states’ did not have the resources to police their own borders so the whole issue was moot. In any event, there are still many instances where two independent countries agree to disagree on where to draw the line of separation (Kashmir is a case in point).

In any event, borders do matter now and countries spend a lot of money and resources protecting their territory. This is especially true when it comes to our concern over terrorism and criminality. No one wants to allow bad guys to enter from abroad. We are not going back to a status quo ante because of 9/11 (as an aside, writing as a Canadian, I have fond memories of the painless travel procedures between my country and the US way back when – sigh!).

Lands of immigrants

On the other hand, we want to maintain open borders as much as feasibly possible, again for several reasons. First, international trade matters – a lot. Our collective economic well-being relies on the free and unfettered exchange of goods and services. Secondly, we in the West are shrinking when it comes to population. Our birth rates are below the 2.1 children per mother level needed to maintain our current levels and it is only through open borders – i.e. immigration – that we can resolve this. Thirdly, our nations (Canada and the US) are by definition lands of immigrants, facilitated by open borders. Our richness comes from ‘over there’.

At the same time there is clearly a national security/public safety angle (the two terms are often conflated but are not the same). We only need to cast our attention back to 9/11: the 19 hijackers all came through the US immigration system. Mistakes were made and some 3,000 people died. So not implementing screening and vetting, whether it is at the border itself or further abroad (at embassies and consulates) is a non-starter. We do have rational and legitimate reasons to do this.

There are, however, bad ways to do this.

Into that category I would put the recent Trump Administration decision to ‘ban’ immigration from Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania, Eritrea, Myanmar, Kyrgyzstan and Belarus. This is in addition to an earlier move to slam the door on those coming from Iran, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, North Korea, Venezuela, Iraq and Sudan, although the last two were eventually removed from the restrictions. These moves are not well thought out and should be reconsidered.

I repeat: every country has a right to choose whom it wants (and whom it does not want) to immigrate. The problem I have is with the way this is being done. Blanket bans are not the answer: targeted ones are. We can identify threats to our countries – from terrorists, fraudsters, criminals, etc. – on an individual basis with the resources we have. Is this system perfect? Of course not: the odd bad actor can get through. But the numbers are really, really small. Unless we want 100% safety, which is unattainable in any event, we can do this.

Over-exaggerated threat

Besides, the threat from terrorism coming to our shores from abroad has been vastly over-exaggerated. Statistics clearly show that since 9/11 very few attacks are perpetrated by immigrants. The vast, vast majority, in Canada as well as the US, are planned by individuals born and raised (and radicalised) on our watch. And for those who interject that as some of the terrorists are second or third or fourth generation Americans we should not have allowed their (great) grandparents to immigrate in the first place, we can take that line of argument back to Plymouth Rock!

The truth is that we collectively do a very good job at stopping undesirables from gaining access to our lands. There are multiple checks and balances in place to ensure we are as safe as we can be. As this recent piece in The New Yorker by Ben Taub put it:

Refugees are the most thoroughly vetted category of people entering the U.S. Candidates are screened by the C.I.A., the N.S.A., the F.B.I., the Department of Defense, and several other agencies before they arrive. They are interviewed by Homeland Security officers who have received training in identifying lies, along with intelligence briefings about the applicants’ country of origin. An office within the D.H.S. called the Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate carries out open-source and classified research on candidates from certain backgrounds. Biographical and biometric information is run through numerous databases and watch lists, including Interpol’s Foreign Terrorist Fighter Database, which is informed by the collective investigative capacity of fifty-two countries. 

Translation: it is hard to come here to do bad things. Really hard. Really, really hard. The men and women we have trained and deployed in our security intelligence, law enforcement and border patrol agencies do us proud.

I’d like to see a push back on the increasingly isolationist position adopted by the current US Administration (there is no real equivalent – so far – in Canada). In the end the more we exchange the richer we are, in so many ways.


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Phil Gurski
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