9/11 and U.S. immigration policy

The fusing of immigration policy to the U.S. war on terrorism–and the resultant tightening of access to the country by foreign students, professionals, and immigrants from areas regarded as most likely to contain potential terrorists–generated a major debate over the goals of immigrant policy, and led to substantial changes in the day-to-day operation of U.S. policies toward the nationals of other countries.

The immigration policy of the United States was already in the process of being revised in 2001, when Middle Eastern operatives of the Muslim extremist organization al-Qaeda hijacked four American jet airliners for use as flying bombs against targets in New York City and Washington, D.C., on September 11 of that year. Prior to that moment, however, the main issue driving the national immigration debate had been primarily economic–the charge that the influx of Illegal immigration;and terrorist attacks[terrorist attacks]illegal immigrants was driving down U.S. wages and depriving American citizens of employment. To that argument, the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon buildingPentagon building added a major national security issue to immigration reform.al-Qaeda[al Qaeda];September 11, 2001, attacksTerrorism;September 11, 2001, attacksNew York City;September 11, 2001, terrorist attacksWashington, D.C.;September 11, 2001, terrorist attacksSeptember 11, 2001, terrorist attacks;and Muslim
immigrants[Muslim immigrants]
Terrorism;”war on terrorism”[war on terrorism]al-Qaeda[al Qaeda];September 11, 2001, attacksTerrorism;September 11, 2001, attacksNew York City;September 11, 2001, terrorist attacksWashington, D.C.;September 11, 2001, terrorist attacksSeptember 11, 2001, terrorist attacks;and Muslim immigrants[Muslim immigrants][cat]DEPORTATION;9/11 and U.S. immigration policy[03910][cat]EVENTS AND MOVEMENTS;9/11 and U.S. immigration policy[03910][cat]BORDERS;9/11 and U.S. immigration policy[03910]Terrorism;”war on terrorism”[war on terrorism]

Dust clouds enveloping Lower Manhattan after the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001.


The significance of that change in policy direction was quickly dramatized when the Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S.;disbanding ofU.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was reconstituted as the Citizenship and Immigration Services, U.S.;creation ofU.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and placed under the aegis of the newly created Homeland Security, Department ofDepartment of Homeland Security on March 1, 2003. Elsewhere, the government moved aggressively to tighten the rules governing admission to the United States, to secure its borders more tightly to prevent hostile aliens from entering the country illegally, and to identify illegal immigrants who were already inside the country.

Restricting Admission to the United States

The most widely criticized of the government’s post-9/11 actions were proposals–later abandoned–to criminalize entering the United States illegally. Nearly as controversial, however, were administrative reforms mandating special registration of certain categories of immigrants. For example, Foreign students;registration ofinternational students were to register their names and addresses with the government and regularly update that information. Even more draconian were requirements for male immigrants from twenty-four predominantly Muslim immigrants;registration ofMuslim countries to be photographed, fingerprinted, and annually interviewed by government officials. The new regulations also made it easier to Deportationdeport aliens for even minor criminal transgressions. Visas;application proceduresVisa application and renewal procedures were expanded, along with the discretionary authority of U.S. officials stationed abroad to deny visas to applicants unable to meet the heightened security requirements for entry to the United States. Critics have argued that the net result of these moves has been to deny entry or
reentry to many valued people because their points of origin happened to be in the Muslim world.

Sealing the Borders and Identifying Illegal Immigrants

A collateral consequence of the 9/11 attacks was that they focused new attention on the large numbers ofIllegal immigration;and terrorist attacks[terrorist attacks]non-European aliens who were in the United States illegally, thereby generating new calls to bolster border security against unsanctioned immigrants. The focus of these calls was the long U.S. border with Mexico. The U.S. Congress responded in 2006 by authorizing the Border fenceexpansion of a secure fence along the border. Another step taken to advance border security was requiring, on a phased-in basis, U.S. citizens to carry Passportspassports when traveling to–and especially when returning from–neighboring Mexico and Canada, which were once free from that requirement.

To prevent future terrorist attacks on the United States, new and often highly controversial policies were implemented to identify and respond to the growing number of illegal immigrants already inside the country. The [a]Patriot Act of 2001Patriot Act, passed less than six weeks after 9/11, expanded the Federal Bureau of Investigation;monitoring of immigrantsFederal Bureau of Investigation’s authority to monitor people living inside the United States. The National Security Entry-Exit Registration SystemNational Security Entry-Exit Regulation System put into effect in 2002 required male noncitizens over the age of sixteen to register with the government. A computerized entry-exit system at ports of entry enhanced the federal government’s ability to identify more easily those staying beyond the time permitted by their visas.

Meanwhile, raids were launched on the sites of companies suspected of employing Illegal immigration;and terrorist attacks[terrorist attacks]illegal immigrants, especially at locations judged to be near potential terrorist targets, such as construction areas near Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C. In this endeavor, federal agents were often assisted by state and local enforcement agencies. In fact, the latter often carried the greater burden. Ironically, federal scrutiny of firms suspected of harboring illegal employees actually declined in the years immediately following 9/11, when the government focused more on identifying likely Arab terrorists.

To heighten national security, Congress passed the [a]Real ID Act of 2005Real ID Act in 2005. This law’s main purpose was to standardize procedures across the United States involving the acquisition of driving licenses by specifying the requirements that must be met for state licenses and for identity cards used for such “official purposes” as entering federal buildings and security-sensitive private facilities such as nuclear power plants, and for boarding commercial aircraft. The federal act also authorized federal magistrates to require additional proofs of identity and status of aliens already in the country who are seeking asylum.al-Qaeda[al Qaeda];September 11, 2001, attacksTerrorism;September 11, 2001, attacksNew York City;September 11, 2001, terrorist attacksWashington, D.C.;September 11, 2001, terrorist attacksSeptember 11, 2001, terrorist attacks;and Muslim immigrants[Muslim immigrants]

Further Reading

  • Alden, Edward H. The Closing of the American Border: Terrorism, Immigration, and Security Since 9/11. New York: Harper, 2008. Thoughtful assessment of post-9/11 immigration policy based on interviews with Bush administration officials and persons adversely affected by those policies.
  • Farnam, Julie. U.S. Immigration Laws Under the Threat of Terrorism. New York: Algora, 2005. Thorough treatment of the subject that examines the post-9/11 restrictions on immigration in the context of the restrictive immigration and asylum laws that resulted from the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993.
  • Kettl, Donald F. System Under Stress: Homeland Security and American Politics. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 2004. Excellent introductory reading for those seeking to place post-9/11 changes in immigration policy into the broader context of U.S. counterterrorism policy.
  • McEntire, David A. Introduction to Homeland Security: Understanding Terrorism with an Emergency Management Perspective. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2009. Covers the same ground as Kettl’s work but in a more extensive manner.
  • U.S. Senate. War on Terrorism: Immigration Enforcement Since September 11, 2001: Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security, and Citizenship. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2003. For researchers with access to public documents, an outstanding source for testimonial arguments for and against the tightening of U.S. borders after 9/11.

Arab immigrants

Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001

Border fence

History of immigration after 1891

Homeland Security, Department of

Loyalty oaths

Muslim immigrants

Patriot Act of 2001

Supreme Court, U.S.