Open Borders, Terrorism, and Islam

I assume that other open borders supporters cringed, as I did, when it was reported that the suspects in the Boston bombings were immigrants. For some people, the Boston atrocity appears to have reinforced fears that immigrants could be terrorists.  A man interviewed in a Philadelphia suburb said, “’I’m a little more of an extremist now after what happened in Boston… I think we should just stop letting people in.’” Even maintaining current immigration levels or instituting small liberalizations of American immigration policy may be threatened by what happened in Boston and similar immigrant-connected terrorism, let alone their negative impact on the push for open borders.

Concerns about the connection between immigrants and terrorism involve Muslim immigrants. The Boston suspects were Muslims and may have been inspired by religious extremism to carry out the attacks. The Bipartisan Policy Center reports that the U.S. has “a domestic terrorist problem involving immigrant and indigenous Muslims as well as converts to Islam.” ((9/10/10, Bipartisan Policy Center, Assessing the Terrorist Threat), page 31) Even some open borders advocates seem uncertain if an open borders policy should apply to Muslim immigrants. In the site’s background page on terrorism, Vipul paraphrases a view (not necessarily his own): “[F]or those who believe that Islamic immigration to the United States poses a unique threat, this may be a reason to maintain present restrictions on immigration from Islamic countries and self-identified Muslims from other countries.”  Muslim immigration would increase with open borders, and some of these additional immigrants could become terrorists. (see also here and here).

However, especially after situations like Boston (and there have been others), open borders supporters should explain how open borders could actually help protect the U.S. from terrorism and that open borders should be available to all individual immigrants, regardless of religion, so long as they pose no terrorist threat. Vipul has collected some of these arguments at the link above.  My vision of open borders and that of a number of other supporters does involve keeping out potential terrorists through security screenings at the border.  So one argument notes that, unlike our current restrictionist policy which devotes considerable resources and focus on keeping out unauthorized immigrants seeking to work in the U.S., resources under an open borders policy could be focused on screening out terrorists.  Another argument is that the free movement of people between countries could lead to the spreading of ideas contrary to those which inspire terrorism; immigrants who move between the U.S. or other western countries and their native countries would share values such as individual rights, tolerance, and democracy with their compatriots who remain in the native countries.  A third argument is that if terrorism grows out of weak economies in native countries, the free movement of people from those countries and the resulting economic benefit to those countries (through remittances and immigrants returning to their native country to establish new businesses) could help prevent terrorism.

There is another reason open borders could help combat terrorism.  Kevin Johnson, author of Opening the Floodgates, notes that “carefully crafted immigration enforcement is less likely to frighten immigrant communities—the very communities whose assistance is essential if the United States truly seeks to successfully fight terrorism.” (page 35)   Without the fear of being the targets of immigration enforcement, immigrants would be more likely to cooperate with authorities in identifying individuals who are potential terrorists in the U.S. and assist with efforts against terrorist groups abroad.  This would fit with the government’s strategy to gain the cooperation of Muslims in the U.S. in addressing terrorism.  Quintan Wiktorowicz, a national security staff member in the White House, notes in a discussion on an administration plan to fight terrorism in the U.S. that “Muslim communities and Muslims in the United States are not the problem, they are the solution. And that’s the message we plan to take to those particular communities in addressing at least al-Qaida inspired radicalization of violent extremism…”

For the effort abroad, Nathan Smith suggests that “emigrants from Islamic countries could provide a valuable resource for the intelligence services of the West in their fight against Islamic terrorism.”  Open borders would presumably increase the number of immigrants from countries that have been sources of terrorism against the U.S., such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen.  Some of these immigrants could provide the cultural and language skills which would bolster our intelligence resources and help America stay safe from future attacks.  Indeed, our intelligence agencies have often lacked agents who could infiltrate groups that threaten the U.S. (In an article in the Atlantic Monthly in the summer of 2001, Reuel Marc Gereht quoted a former CIA operative as saying “‘The CIA probably doesn’t have a single truly qualified Arabic speaking officer of Middle Eastern background who can play a believable Muslim fundamentalist…’” (pages 38-42, July/August 2001))

In addition to articulating the potential benefits of open borders to stopping terrorism, open borders advocates must emphasize that most Muslims are peaceful and should be allowed to immigrate.  Philippe Legrain, author of Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them, warns “we should not fall into the trap of thinking that Muslims are a uniform and separate community whose identity is wholly defined by their religion, still less an inevitably hostile or violent one.” (page 304) He notes that Muslims come from many different countries, each with their own traditions, and, like other religious groups, some are religious, some not.  “There are feminist Muslims, gay Muslims and Muslims who reject their faith.” (page 304)  In addition, “only a small minority of Muslims are fundamentalist,” and only a tiny number of fundamentalists are terrorists. (page 305)  There are over 2.5  million Muslims living in the U.S., about two thirds of whom are immigrants, but very few are involved in terrorism.  The Bipartisan Policy Center reports that in 2009 “at least 43 American citizens or residents aligned with Sunni militant groups or their ideology were charged or convicted of terrorism crimes in the U.S. or elsewhere, the highest number in any year since 9/11.” (Page 5 of this report ) Mr. Legrain explains that “the threat of Islamic terrorism  is a reason for increased vigilance, surveillance and scrutiny; it is not reason for limiting immigration.”

Nathan Smith has noted that when dramatic events occur, such as an act of terrorism by immigrants or a plane crash, people often overestimate the frequency of such events, a phenomenon called “availability bias.”  This mental overreaction to “extremely unrepresentative events” makes people attribute more importance to the events than they deserve.  This dynamic suggests that open borders supporters have a lot of work to do convincing the public that most Muslims who want to immigrate pose no threat and that open borders may actually help in the fight against terrorism.

Joel has a bachelor’s degree in history from Pomona College and works as a teacher in Beaverton, Oregon.

See also:

our blog post introducing Joel
all blog posts by Joel

8 thoughts on “Open Borders, Terrorism, and Islam”

  1. “Immigrants devoted to their own cultures and religions are not influenced by the secular politically correct façade that dominates academia, news-media, entertainment, education, religious and political thinking today,” said James Walsh, former Associate General Counsel of the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service. “They claim the right not to assimilate, and the day is coming when the question will be how can the United States regulate the defiantly unassimilated cultures, religions and mores of foreign lands? Such immigrants say their traditions trump the U.S. legal system. Balkanization of the United States has begun.”

    1. This kind of argument is similar (though admittedly less offensive to modern ears) as the arguments that have been made for every immigrant group which has come to the United States. Even Benjamin Franklin argued that the Germans were never going to assimilate and would bring down America. The essential substance of these arguments has changed relatively little in both times of large scale and smaller scale immigration and the fears involved have failed to come to fruition every time. Indeed on a smaller scale, large movements of people within the United States have failed to destroy local cultures or to even cause significant disruption. Millions of Northerns moving to Atlanta hasn’t eliminated the prevalence of sweet tea in the city. You may say that there is greater similarity between Americans than Americans and non-Americans and that is true, but 19th century America survived and thrived with diverse immigration, and modern European society has survived the Schengen Area (the major problems in Europe not being immigrant based but currency issues).

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