Shortly after two men were arrested in last October's sniper shootings, ending a crime spree that had terrorized the D.C.-Baltimore area and left 10 people dead, a detail emerged that galvanized a large segment of the American punditry. One of the suspects, 17-year-old John Lee Malvo, was an illegal alien -- a Jamaican who had entered Florida as a stowaway. Moreover, in December 2001 the U.S. Border Patrol had taken him and his mother into custody. A month later, despite their admission that they were here illegally, the Seattle office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service released them on bond instead of deporting them.
Writing in National Review, the syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin -- author of the book Invasion: How America Still Welcomes Terrorists, Criminals, and Other Foreign Menaces to Our Shores (Regnery Gateway, 2002) and the first to break the story of Malvo's brush with the INS -- charged that such "catch and release" decisions have "cost scores of American lives," now including the victims of the snipers. Pat Buchanan put it even more bluntly on Fox News: "Whoever turned him loose in the INS has got blood on his hands."
Never mind that, at the time of Malvo's detention, no one could have predicted that he would engage in homicidal violence. True, he lived in a homeless shelter with his Svengali-like "stepfather," John Allen Muhammad. But he was a clean-cut boy who attended school and had never been in trouble with the law. Blaming the INS for the sniper deaths makes no more sense than blaming a highway patrol officer who lets a motorist with an expired car registration get back behind the wheel if, five miles down the road, that motorist holds up a convenience store and kills the salesclerk.
Never mind, too, that while Malvo may have been the actual triggerman in most of the shootings, the U.S.-born Muhammad was clearly the mastermind. There is little doubt that Malvo, who apparently had a troubled relationship with his mother, wanted only to please the surrogate father he idolized. "There is a large pool of messed-up teenagers in the United States," points out Daniel Griswold, a trade and immigration analyst at the Cato Institute. "John Muhammad did not need to recruit an illegal immigrant to do what he did."
One could easily turn around and argue that the shootings could have been prevented if Malvo's mother, Uma James, had been free to seek the authorities' help in extricating her son from Muhammad's clutches. (In fact, it was her attempt to do so that led to the pair's arrest by the Border Patrol.)
Alas, the attempt to exploit Malvo's crime to advance an anti-immigrant agenda is all too typical of many conservatives' rhetoric since September 11 on immigration and terrorism.
It's understandable, of course, that a terrorist act committed by foreign nationals should raise concerns about national security and border control. But that doesn't mean the problem of terrorism should be conflated with that of illegal immigration.
The 19 hijackers who struck on September 11 all entered the U.S. legally as tourists or business travelers, although three of them had overstayed their visas. At the same time, not one of the millions of illegals who cross the border from Mexico or get smuggled in on cargo vessels from China has been implicated in terrorism. The most Malkin can muster for a terrorist connection is that two illegal immigrants, along with one legal permanent resident from El Salvador, helped four of the hijackers get the phony driver's licenses they used to get on the airplanes.
"It's true that the system is broken," says Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. "But the people who are exploiting these legitimate fears to cut back on immigration are going in the wrong direction. It sounds logical at first, but it's not realistic, it's not going to be enforceable, and ultimately it's not going to give us better security."
Indeed, a wholesale crackdown on illegal immigration could, by consuming scarce resources, hinder rather than help the effort to keep potential terrorists out of this country. "By some estimates," says Griswold, "we spend $3 billion a year trying to keep Mexican workers out of the United States. I'd much rather spend that money trying to keep out Middle Eastern terrorists."
Given the realities of the global economy and the U.S. labor market, the flow of migrants into this country will be a fact for the foreseeable future. Making legal entry easier for people who want to better their lot in life is a much more feasible solution than making entry "a fiercely guarded privilege," as Malkin suggests in Invasion. It is also, of course, far more feasible than the fantasy of deporting the 9 million to 11 million illegal immigrants who are already here.
Besides freeing up resources to target terrorists, such legalization would severely diminish the document fraud and smuggling that can in fact assist terrorists. An amnesty for illegal immigrants would bring people out of the shadows in which terror cells can lurk and make it safe for people with useful information about possible terrorists to cooperate with law enforcement. (Oddly, for all her concern about threats to national security, Malkin deplores Attorney General John Ashcroft's offer to grant U.S. citizenship to any alien, legal or illegal, who comes forward with tips that aid the investigation into the 9/11 attacks.)
Immigration hard-liners lament that businesses and local politicians oppose tough measures against illegal aliens, but they rarely stop to wonder if there are good reasons for this opposition. "Polls show that the public opinion is squeamish about immigration," says Jacoby, "but people are squeamish in the abstract. When it comes to their own lives and their local economy, they're not so squeamish."
None of this is to say that we shouldn't try to weed out potential terrorists who come to our shores, or that political correctness never gets in the way of border control. Both Griswold and Jacoby favor targeted scrutiny of immigrants and visitors from countries with special links to terrorism -- including the new Justice Department rules requiring visa holders from 20 countries, nearly all of them Arab and/or Muslim, to register with the INS.
Such profiling may smack of ethnic and religious prejudice, but unfortunately it also reflects reality. Forty-five of the 48 foreigners known to have committed or plotted terrorist acts in the U.S. since the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 have been Middle Eastern Arabs.
Even so, profiling should be tempered with discretion. In December about 400 men who showed up for registration in Southern California were arrested for minor violations of immigration law. Many of these violations were unintended, due to slow INS paperwork on their applications for permanent residency or visa extensions.
All but 20 (whose names showed up in law enforcement records) were released within three days -- but not until after considerable humiliation and discomfort. Such measures can only make aliens less likely to cooperate with the authorities.
It may be a cliché to say that radically altering our life in response to terrorism means letting the terrorists win. But it's also true, perhaps especially with regard to immigration -- and not just because fully implementing the anti-immigrant agenda would cause our economy to collapse.
The openness, freedom, and plenitude that lead radical Islamists to hate America are precisely what draw so many people from around the world to live here. Among them, do not forget, were the hundreds of foreign nationals who were among those killed in the World Trade Center.