Fifteen years ago on September 11, 2001, it appeared that comprehensive immigration reform was imminent. The prior week, President Vicente Fox of Mexico visited the U.S. and spoke to President Bush and Congress about the need for reform, and serious momentum was growing. However, the tragic events on September 11 set the immigration debate back significantly and in the post-9/11 world, immigration policy has become defined by “securitization.” That is, once it became apparent that the attacks were carried out by foreigners, pressure mounted for the adoption of new immigration restrictions in the name of security and any talk of other reforms was dead.

Many changes have been made to the immigration system in the last fifteen years and while many were intended to target terrorism, these policies have had a significant impact on all immigrant communities. Some of the most notable include:

  • The National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) program, which was most immediately implemented and required select male noncitizens from countries with a “significant terrorist presence” to be fingerprinted and photographed. Despite the fact that NSEERS officially ended in 2011, the rhetoric of “extreme vetting” has reemerged, and the legal authority to resume special registration remains on the books.
  • Refugees and asylum-seekers, many of whom are fleeing terror, have been the focus of post-9/11 security measures. Despite the fact they were already one of the most heavily-vetted immigrant groups, security-related checks of refugees have become even more intense, often delaying the process and often reducing the number of refugees admitted annually to the U.S.
  • States and localities have become more involved in immigration enforcement. Immediately after 9/11, the federal government announced its intention to partner with state and local police and use them as “force multipliers” to identify and deport deportable immigrants through the 287(g) program. State and local governments have further entered the immigration arena with a wide range of laws and policies intended to dissuade immigrants and refugees from settling there, such as Arizona’s SB1070.

Not all of the post 9/11 response has been negative, however, with some states and localities promoting policies intended to welcome immigrants and integrate them into social, cultural, and economic life in their communities. State level-policy making has recognized that strategies that embrace newcomers rather than ostracize them will be more successful at combating the isolation and resentment that can fuel acts of violence.

Fifteen years after 9/11, advocates and political leaders must return to a broader approach to reforming our immigration system. Keeping the nation safe will always be an important element of immigration policy, and many steps have been taken to ensure that those entering the U.S. do not do us harm. However, we must look at immigration reform more broadly and create a new system for the twenty-first century that keeps us safe without compromising the ways in which immigration benefits the country economically, culturally, and socially.

Photo by Ângelo Pereira.