Bad Fences Make Bad Neighbors

How 9/11 dumbed down the immigration debate


At the beginning of September 2001, immigration was much in the news. President Bush wanted to legalize more Mexicans who were working in America without documentation, and Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) was loudly opposed. Business leaders said immigrants would bring economic growth; Phyllis Schlafly said they would bring tuberculosis.. Amnesty was a dirty word. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) told The New York Times, "Fences are going to go down between these two countries." Republican conservatives opposed legalization, and President Bush started to hedge.

How drastically has the situation changed since then? According to the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. issued 406,080 immigrant visas in 2001 and 395,005 in 2005. The country admitted too few legal immigrants in 2005, just as it did in 2001, and 9/11 seems to have had little lasting effect. Terror's major contribution was to end talk of legalization until Bush resurrected the issue in 2004.

Of course, the hijackers weren't immigrants at all. They were visitors carrying temporary visas. And since September 2001, America has been far more suspicious of visitors who come to study, sightsee, or strike a deal. Americans hardly felt the transition that killed the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), but foreigners endured longer waits and more rejections as the number of visas issued dropped precipitously. Virtually every visa application now requires an interview, and applicants can wait months to score one. Certain groups, such as foreign science students and visitors traveling from Arab countries, are subject to more bureaucracy and longer waits. Immigration courts have been havens of secrecy; even immigration lawyers complain they really don't understand the process. A 2004 survey by industry groups found visa delays cost American businesses $30 billion between July 2002 and March 2004.

As lawmakers translated raw fear into clumsy statutes, some would-be Americans suffered in ways the numbers do not convey. The U.S. has long been generous to refugees, but a provision of the PATRIOT Act has kept thousands of refugees from resettlement in the United States. The act denies asylum to those who have given "material support" to terrorists, even under duress, while a provision of the REAL ID Act expands the definition of terrorist. Myanmar refugees forced to share a meal with rebels (who are fighting a government at least as terror-driven as they are) and Colombians who surrendered possessions to armed guerilla groups are regularly turned away.

Still, temporary visa issuances have been creeping back up. The necessities of international capitalism are too pressing for such restrictions to endure. The State Department is trying to increase staffing at foreign consulates, and a sharp, extended drop in foreign students show signs of leveling off.

The conversation has returned to immigration from Mexico, and the debate is almost the same one that was going on before the towers fell. How have the terms changed? Those who support open borders make the same arguments they've been making for decades, but the Tom Tancredos of the world now counter with the lexicon of terror. Just as Iraqis and Saudis somehow became indistinguishable in the rhetorical aftermath of 9/11, Middle Eastern terrorists who come by air are conflated with Mexicans who come on foot. The skies are calm, but the desert teems with invaders. Immigrants are no longer poor people looking for jobs, or even unapologetic lawbreakers, but living symbols of the holes they slipped through.

We didn't have a plan for immigration reform then, and we don't have one now. The shift is conceptual, captured in language if not in law. When Joe Lieberman told The New York Times that "fences are going to go down between these two countries," he was expressing a mainstream political position. The most illuminating part of this sentiment is not the hope Lieberman expressed but the cliché he chose to express it. Back in 2001, after all, the word fence was just a metaphor.