The Closing of the American Border

New America Media, Q&A with Edward Alden, Sandip Roy Posted: Oct 12, 2008

Editors Note: The war on terror has come home to America. But when did the war on terror morph into a war on illegal immigration? Today it is much harder for a terrorist to enter the United States than it used to be, but according to Edward Alden, it's also much harder for everyone else. Edward Alden is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of "The Closing of the American Border: Terrorism, Immigration and Security Since 9/11." Alden was interviewed by New America Media editor Sandip Roy.
Edward AldenEdward Alden, senior fellow,
Council on Foreign Relations

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the government seemed to put forth a unified stance on the need to combat terror. But you say in your book that there was actually a fierce internal fight between two groups you call them The Cops versus The Technocrats. Who are they?

Indeed, this fight began the very night of 9/11. Jim Ziegler, who was the head of Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) at the time, was strongly opposed to what the Ashcroft Justice Department did after 9/11, which was to use immigration laws aggressively as a counter-terrorism tool, to hold people on immigration violations if they believed they had even the slightest connection to terrorism.

There was one faction that said, 'Look, we need to use immigration law aggressively as our main tool in the war on terrorism.' Another group of people, most of them under Tom Ridge in the White House, and later the Department of Homeland Security, said, Look, if we do that, all we're going to succeed in doing is driving away people that we want and need to come to the United States. We need to be more targeted and intelligent about how we strengthen our border after 9/11.

You quote George W. Bush saying to his customs chief, 'You've got to secure our borders against a terror threat, but you have to do it without shutting down the U.S. economy.' How did the ones who were all for using immigration law win out?

The ones who wanted to strengthen border controls intelligently knew what they wanted to do, but it was a long process. You needed to develop new systems to identify more accurately who was coming into the United States and who you had reason to be concerned about.

The people in the Justice Department who wanted to use immigration law didn't need to wait. Immigration law is an incredibly powerful tool for arresting and detaining any foreigner. One of the officials that I interviewed said, 'Immigration law is like tax law you're guilty until proven innocent.'

One of the things that happened as a result of using immigration law is so much of the focus shifted to the southern border, which was not a factor in the 9/11 attacks. You say in your book that in fact there was a real threat of terrorists coming from Canada.

There are two ways in which terrorists have entered the United States. The most common one has been on airplanes. The northern border has also, on a handful of occasions, been used by terrorist to get into the United States. The most famous case was the case of Ahmed al Hassan, who was stopped by a customs inspector at a border in Washington state.

What about the southern border?

There are no documented cases of terrorists using the southern border to get into the United States. But if your primary tool for fighting the war on terrorism is immigration law, and you think that by cracking down on illegal immigrants you are going to secure the country from terrorists, well the vast majority of illegal immigrants are coming across the southern border, so inevitably that's where youre going to concentrate your resources.

When you talk to people who wanted to use immigration law as a counter-terrorism measure, did you get a sense that they were doing it because they had to show something concrete, or did they really believe it would work to make the country safer?

The biggest motivation was fear. There was the belief among almost everybody inside the U.S. government after 9/11 that another attack was coming and they really had no idea where it might be coming from. The FBI had no good sources in the Muslim communities in the United States, the border control systems were fairly ineffective and so they thought, Let's just use the tool we've got and go out and detain as many people as we can and hopefully that will prevent another attack.

But I do think that there were some people inside the government who wanted to use this to push more generally for a crackdown on illegal immigration. Most of the arguments we hear against illegal immigration are economic arguments. What happened after 9/11 was suddenly you had this new set of security fears. That allowed the government to do things that are far more Draconian than would have been accepted under a circumstance where you didn't have that security fear.

What measures have become acceptable after 9/11 that didn't have public support before?

The construction of border barriers. I don't think there is any way we would have considered building a fence all along the border. I don't think we would see a Border Patrol that has nearly doubled in size from 10,000 to close to 20,000.

We certainly would not have seen all of the screening mechanisms that we see now: the fingerprinting at the airport, the proliferation of these terrorist watch lists and no-fly lists.

What do you think is the most troubling of these measures?

Probably most troubling to me, I don't think we would see anything like the level of detention that we see right now. At any given time, in the United States now, there are 30,000 to 40,000 people detained on immigration violation awaiting deportation. They often spend months and months in jail with no real due process, awaiting deportation. Even families with small children are being held in what amount to small jails. I dont think we would have seen measures that are that harsh without the fears that were thrown up by 9/11.

In the course of researching this book, did you find border control measures or other security measure that have been put in place since 9/11 that you think, in fact, do work and we should keep doing?

Within about two hours after the 9/11 attacks, the customs service was able to identify accurately all 19 of the hijackers. The reason they were able to do that is they have access to the flight manifests of those aircrafts.

One of the things that's happened since 9/11 is that you require advanced information on anyone flying into the United States so that the Department of Homeland Security has a chance to run checks against watch lists. I think those kinds of targeted intelligence measures have proven very effective since 9/11 and not disruptive, for the most part, to innocent travelers who are, after all, the vast majority of people coming into the United States.

What has been the main unintended consequence of this strategy?

The number of people who got visas to come to the United States dropped by more than 30 percent from before 9/11 to 2003 and 2004. You saw long delays to get visas. The result was a lot of the talented immigrants that we want to attract to this country started going to other places. I think the biggest unintended consequence was that, in an effort to identify a handful of terrorists, we've kept out hundreds of thousands of people that we wanted to come to this country.

What do you think is going to be the first task of the new president when it comes to borders, security and counter-terrorism?

What I'm hoping is that the new administration will succeed in separating terrorism from illegal immigration as much as possible in the public discussion. These are two very different problems. The tools you need to deal with illegal immigration are not the tools that you need to keep terrorists out of the country. So, I'm hoping that either an Obama or a McCain administration would begin to make those distinctions.

So what is the connection between counter-terrorism and immigration policy?

The whole challenge in counter-terrorism is to try to identify what really is a needle in a haystack, which is a small handful of people who intend to do serious harm. What you need to do to help increase the odds that you are going to be able to identify that needle is to shrink the haystack. So, I believe we need comprehensive immigration reform, because if you can take some of the population who now comes here illegally and channel that into legal ways, then you shrink the haystack and that makes the counter-terrorism problem that much easier to deal with. I think that needs to be a priority for any new administration.

Transcribed by Laurie Simmons.

Listen to the entire interview on New America Now

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User Comments


Adam Thomas on Oct 18, 2008 at 07:18:50 said:

In a perfect world Mr. Alden would be presenting a perfect solution. The fact is we live in a very dangerous world and if Mr. Alden believes that terrorist organizations have not infiltrated the immigrant community then he is was not only ill informed by those he interviewed but is constructing a message to meet his own clearly biased agenda.

Errors have been made by the government and its bureaucrats which have caused serious difficulties for trade, commerce and immigration procedures. America's friends and neighbors have not been amused with much of the hubris that has been attached to countering terrorism as it relates to border procedures. Many of these have proven to be unhelpful and will take years to turn around. However these issues are being rectified perhaps not as quickly as many would like.

Mr. Alden is totally correct on one issue. America needs to reconnect with her friends and allies to ensure that the US border management processes are in step with the rest of the civilized world.


ashamed on Oct 13, 2008 at 10:19:03 said:

my fellow human beings, please do some real research and inform yourselves, it's time for people to start truly grasping the reality that these 'illegal immigrants' wouldn't be coming to this country to work the shitty jobs that they do while putting up with all the discrimination of unaware and ignorant folks, were it not for us invading THEIR homelands for the past century. tho us average americans are not the ones to blame because we're not the ones who own the corporations nor the ones who fund the killing of millions of their people back home, we're not the ones who overthrow their real democratic leaders who really want to help the people in their lands, us average folks are not the ones who get cheap labor for our companies, at fault are the same business giants and government officials who manipulate our everyday lives and our ways of thinking let's face it how many of us americans make REAL money here..yes we do have opportunities and freedom which has been slowly diminishing, but all at the cost of millions of people around the world. i love my people and my country, but i hate those who truly run this place.

one other thing, please learn something about the real history of the middle east and their oppressed people before you call them 'terrorists'..

remember this, most of all the programming we see and hear on tv n radio is under the umbrella of 4 major multi-national corporations..

please people inform yoursleves

please people, inform yourselves.


locke on Oct 12, 2008 at 21:44:46 said:

I don\'t understand why do people support on bringing ILLEGAL immigrants over here. I do believe its the USA fault that they let that many Illegal Immigrants over here and they should be responsible for those that are here already and take care of them.

The USA is built on immigrants not ILLEGAL immigrants.


Ransome on Oct 12, 2008 at 19:34:45 said:

The Four Horsemen of the Economic Apocalypse, Globalization, Deregulation, Open Borders, and Free Trade represent the business practices that the modern Robber Barons used to ruin this country. American capitalism is no longer about market innovation, now it is about political manipulation. Unlike the market capitalists who succeed financially by producing new, better, or cheaper products, political capitalists use campaign contributions to manipulate the system to their advantage. For example, they influence politicians to enact free trade agreements like NAFTA where the rich of both countries benefits and the poor suffers. They advocate increases in farm subsidies and open borders in order to satiate the capitalists hunger for cheap labor. The markets is no longer about innovation, quality, and customer satisfaction but about who can provide the cheapest labor.

Still, I find it incredible that the writer continue to promote open borders with the country in such financial distress. I rank the open border crowd with the necons who led us into the war with Iraq. Do you realize the mess that you open borders people have made of things? Do you have any idea the consequences when the depression unleashes the already pent-up anger over illegal immigration? Do you really think that it will be business as usual for the illegal immigrants that you open border people encouraged to migrate? They will become even bigger targets. You have put millions of people in jeopardy because economic hostility will override concern for human rights violations. People will demand that jobs should go to American citizens and often in a violent manner. In 1930s, an estimated 1 million people went to Mexico in a wave of deportations and voluntary repatriations. 50% were U.S. citizens of Mexican ancestry.

We may undergo the worst period in American history since slavery. In his book the War of the World, Niall Ferguson posits that much of the extreme violence of the 20th century is explained by a combination of ethnic conflicts, economic volatility, and empires in decline. The internal ethnic conflict over illegal immigration, the economic volatility of our stock market, the bailout, and possible depression combined with the decrease in world influence makes us vulnerable. I hope someone plans for the social and ethnic discord that the country will experience if there is a depression. When the streets get very ugly, the open borders crowd will only have themselves to blame.


Buzzm1 on Oct 12, 2008 at 19:12:48 said:

WE HAVE BEEN INVADED!!!

SOUTHWEST BORDER APPREHENSIONS (Source DHS/CBP)
1987--1,190,488------1995--1,394,554------2003----905,065
1988--1,008,145------1996--1,649,986------2004--1,139,282
1989----954,243------1997--1,412,953------2005--1,189,108
1990--1,169,939------1998--1,555,776------2006--1,071,972
1991--1,197,875------1999--1,537,000------2007----858,638
1992--1,258,482------2000--1,643,679------2008----660,288 (08/31)
1993--1,327,259------2001--1,235,718
1994--1,094,717------2002----929,809

FACT: In the last 22 years, over 26 million illegals, have been apprehended, crossing our Southwest Border.

THE PROBLEM IS: Less than 1, out of 4 illegals, were estimated to have been apprehended, while crossing the border, into our United States.

Mind boggling, isn't it.

According to the U.S. Immigration Service another 6 million illegals in this country are visa overstays. That is, they got a visa legally in their home country, they came here to visit and then they never left.

In the last 22 years, there have been another 4 million anchor babies born to illegals. Anchor babies are now being born at a rate of 350-400 thousand per year in our United States. All at our expense!!

Then the ANCHOR BABIES qualify for welfare, food stamps, section-8 housing, all at our expense.

American Taxpayers are getting screwed, over, and over, and over, again!!!


JamesF on Oct 12, 2008 at 18:26:28 said:

America is made of immigrants. That is the only factual and logical point you've made. I have served securing our southwest border for 12 years and see the greed machine of cross-border smuggling up close and personal. We have the right to determine who should be welcome in the US without waxing emotional on the plight of all who see our free nation as sanctuary. You think re-distribution of wealth is the answer. I agree that we should begin by re-distributing the wealth of Mexico first. Let's take the top 5% percent and use their 90 percent of all income for the poor before we commit another US tax dollar for Mexican economic refugee relief. Ask yourself one question ...what is our real relationship with the Gov't of Mexico and meditate on that void.


poverty on Oct 12, 2008 at 16:35:41 said:

Immigration is a form of censorship. It denies and takes away human rights, in the name of nationalism. The biggest problem with this, become isolation.

America isn't the land of one race, one gender, one type... It's built upon all those coming from every other location.

Anyone wanting immigration should remember, everyone in the U.S. even the native North American Indians all at one time were coming from another location...

We are all immigrants...

So the question is rather, not to censor human beings, but rather becoming responsible for how we care, take care of and end the misery and suffering of making people property that belongs to countries, regimes whatever...

All people on this planet, should have a right to live anywhere on this planet, provided they don't abuse, ruin this right for others...

Don't listen to stupid talk about how immigration is bad... that's like saying, you only want perfect blue sky days forever...

Immigrants are people, real living human beings... just as you are... and they like you all need help, support and a method of working like you to make ends meet...

Solve this problem, and you will never need immigration censorship...

The answer is fix the economy... make it sustainable, not CAPITALISM.... not socialism.. but bio-sustainable...because, living people need no less the same living recycling in their financial systems of their economy that foster and support the same in the environment... which we all live in on this planet...

End the waste, no more billionaires!!!!


John on Oct 12, 2008 at 15:32:27 said:

A friend, whom is also a Homeland Security officer, told me that those in charge of threat management know that the southern border is the entry point that the terrorist have turned to because legitimate (visa) entry is now highly regulated.

Edward Allen is a Fool if he believes that illegal immigration and the borders are not included in the over all terror threat.


MaryJ on Oct 12, 2008 at 10:41:08 said:

The Council on Foreign Relations is part of the global elite. They are of course for open borders and Mass Third World immigration into First World economies. We don't need anymore immigrants -- our birth rate is at replacement level. The small number who have skills that we can't product at home would come from Europe or Japan, not from anywhere else, certainly not from Mexico or other parts of Latin America.

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