The recent arrest of Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square bombing suspect, has reopened the debate on immigration and national security. Shahzad is an immigrant from Pakistan went to school in the U.S. on a student visa and obtained an H-1B visa in 2002 before gaining citizenship. He slipped through not because of the laxity of our immigration laws, but partly because of their strictness. Immigration authorities’ time would be better spent going after guys like Shazhad, rather than landscapers without the proper papers.
Nevertheless, politicians are seeking to score national security points. For instance, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) has introduced a bill to strip terror suspects of their citizenship and ship them to Guantanamo. Fundamentally changing the nature of American rules and rights regarding citizenship will do nothing to increase security, and erode civil liberties. So what to do instead?
A more reasonable, sensible, and effective solution is to reexamine our labyrinthine immigration laws.
Under our current immigration system, government regulates, plans, and interferes in astounding amount of minutiae with every group of immigrants. Over 90,000 federal immigration service employees are constantly busy trying to regulate Latino laborers and Indian computer programmers. To exclude those who come to America to work, they conduct workplace raids, man checkpoints in the Southwest, and open shipping containers coming from Asia. The result: fewer paths to legal immigration, a decade-long waiting list for legal entry, and a pervasive black market of undocumented workers.
Most U.S. immigration laws concerning entry regulate labor market participation and familial relations. Instead of wasting scarce security resources on those fruitless and invasive tasks, our government should focus in on real threats like identifying and excluding terrorists and criminals. One reason Shahzad slipped through the system is that the immigration system is designed to regulate labor markets, rather than look for security threats.
There are currently 10.8 million illegal immigrants in the United States, of whom the vast majority has not committed any crime. Their primary offense has been to circumvent our complex immigration laws. Almost all likely would have entered legally given a reasonable option.
Immigrants will continue to come to the United States no matter how strict the border controls because of the enormous opportunities only found here. That is a fact.
It is also a fact that the government cannot regulate an underground economy. A way the government could actually regulate these immigrants, and exclude the few that are actual security threats, is to expand the avenues for legal immigration. That will decrease the number of illegal immigrants and instead channel them into a legal market where security can be more effective.
However, dedicated terrorists will always seek ways, legal or illegal, to come into this country, but allowing them to hide camouflaged amongst 10.8 million illegal immigrants in this pervasive black market will only aid them in accomplishing their goals.
Shahzad was on a federal watch list for nine years starting in 1999, three years before getting his H-1B visa. Our government should spend its resources examining those very few foreigners who want to do harm or commit crimes and leave the rest be.
American immigration resources are seriously—even dangerously—misallocated in the era of transnational terrorism. There is a number of potentially very dangerous terrorists who want to do us harm. Taking the threat seriously means looking at every policy solution that can enhance security. Shahzad got as far as he did with his terrorist plot because of the fractious nature of our immigration laws.
Rather than spend more resources trying to address non-risks like foreign laborers and entrepreneurs who want to come to America, we should direct our strained security resources to where they will do the most good. Expanding legal immigration with an eye on security instead of manipulating labor markets would make us safer.
Alex Nowrasteh is a policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute