Preventing terrorism is rarely tied to immigration

This article appeared in The Hill Times on December 4, 2017

Canada is a nation of immigrants.  After all, each and every one of us, with the exception of our First Nations, an immigrant or the offspring of immigrants, whether we can trace our families back to the 16th century or the 21st.  Among many countries in this world we stand as an example of how welcoming new citizens from many areas of the globe is a good thing.  We Canadians, after all, make a big deal about how we are a ‘mosaic’, allowing and encouraging newcomers to keep their languages and traditions, in contrast to the US which sees itself as a ‘melting pot’.

There are some – Doug Saunders is a good example – who think we should increase immigration significantly. These people say that Canada should open the gates more so that we eventually hit 100 million.  I will not rehash their arguments  here.

There are others who think we already take in too many people.  We are losing what it means to be ‘Canadian’ (whatever that means).  And too much immigration, especially from certain parts of the world, is apparently making us less safe.  In their minds, we are allowing terrorists to enter Canada and we need to stop that.  The US under President Trump seems to be going down that road, especially in the wake of a recent attack in Manhattan carried out by an Uzbek emigre.

Unfortunately, things are much more complicated than that.

In fact the terrorists in our midst are more likely to be born and raised here than they are to have come to our shores with nefarious intent.  Even terrorists who come as immigrants do not arrive as terrorists – they radicalise here among us.  This is why calls for less immigration or greater screening of potential arrivals will do little to stop our (small) terrorist problem.  Those that go on to plan  mayhem come from us, they are part of our society.

I suppose that some will say that someone who radicalises to violence after having come here as an immigrant would never have done so in the first place if s/he had not been allowed to enter at all.  While this does enjoy a certain logic it fails to acknowledge that anyone, given the right circumstances, can embrace a violent ideology, such as Islamist extremism, and carry out a terrorist act. If this is true, and my experience tells me it is, we then have to stop all immigration in order to have a 100% guarantee that no immigrant will become a Canadian terrorist.  I know of no one who supports zero immigration.

Furthermore, even shutting the door will not prevent radicalisation to violence since the process itself is an indigenous one.  We could say to the world that those seeking a better life in Canada are not welcome because of the tiny chance one may be a future terrorist and still suffer acts of ideological violence perpetrated by those born and raised here.  We would thus not enjoy the myriad benefits from new Canadians and have yet to solve our terrorist problem.

The ‘immigration is bad for security’ debate strikes me as both shortsighted and perhaps racist.  We in Canada need more immigrants, not fewer, if we continue to want to succeed as a nation.  Of course we must fund and resource CSIS and Citizenship and Immigration Canada to be able to do the requisite screening of applicants and we need to do a much better and more efficient job of removing those who arrive illegally and fail to gain acceptance as refugees, whether for security reasons or not.  The ‘No One is Illegal’ movement defies logic: a nation has to retain control over whom it allows and whom it rejects.  Thankfully, the vast majority of immigrants become great Canadians and we must foster and encourage this.  We cannot allow the few bad apples to taint the barrel.  And we need to get a lot better at recognising homegrown radicalisation to violence: no lock and no gate will stop this from occurring.


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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