On Immigration Reform and Public Opinion Since 9/11

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Nineteen strangers were all it took to pick up our welcome mats and lock our doors. Two buildings in New York City, a field in Pennsylvania, and the always invincible Pentagon quickly became the symbolic origins of political mistrust and cynical hostility toward non-Americans.

Determined to guarantee ourselves that a nationwide tragedy would never again befall us from an outside enemy, immigrants lost our collective hospitality. The once destructive path of McCarthyism was revived in a society that no longer feared a strictly communist agenda, but now felt threatened by the sleeper cell terrorism that seemed to demand our never ending distrust.

Just days before 9/11, President Bush invited President Vicente Fox of Mexico to a state dinner at the White House where they would begin a conversation on immigration reform. Bush himself recounted the meal in his post-presidential memoir.

“I discussed the possibility of creating a temporary worker program that would allow Mexicans to enter the United States lawfully to work a specific job for a fixed period of time. Vicente supported the idea, but he wanted more. He hoped America would legalize all Mexicans in the United States, a policy he called regularization. I made clear that would not happen. I believed amnesty—making illegal immigrants automatic citizens—would undercut the rule of law and encourage further illegal immigration.”

Universal amnesty had rarely been discussed in any government as a viable solution to thwart problems with illegal immigration. The Roman Emperor Lucius Caracalla declared Constitutio Antoniniana in the early part of the 3rd Century, a law that granted universal citizenship as a way to increase the tax revenue throughout the empire. But Caracalla was far from a beloved emperor and there is little evidence to support the success or failure of his immigration policy.

Regardless, the exchange between Fox and Bush took place on September 5. Within just six days, any productive conversation about immigration reform was essentially dead on arrival, or so says Bush himself:

“Then 9/11 hit, and my most serious concern was that terrorists would slip into our country undetected. I put the idea of a temporary worker program on hold and concentrated on border security… we worked with Congress to increase funding for border protection by 60 percent.”

Reactionary legislation on border security was taken for granted between 2001 and 2005, despite the fact that fewer and fewer immigrants were even trying to cross the border after 9/11 and none of the 9/11 hijackers had broken any laws when they initially entered the United States. But yes, border security. Who could argue against spending a few billion dollars adding patrols and building walls?

In the early aftermath of September 11, 2001, lawmakers appeared to have a semi-serious goal of welcoming immigrants with a much more “open” policy. Leading Republicans in the House and Senate were incredibly optimistic. Hoping to achieve equal access for immigrants on the Mexican border—similar to what existed on the Canadian border—Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle addressed the matter in November:

“I think that it ought to be our goal that we have a free pass border at some point in the future. I think it’s unlikely that we will obtain that goal anytime in the short term, but if the United States and Canada have a border like that, we ought to have the opportunity to have that kind of border with Mexico as well.”

Despite such a novel idea of equal immigration policies on multiple borders, the public was thinking more and more about how to tighten security at the borders. Even the Center for Immigration Studies, an independent and non-partisan organization created in 1985, had an immediate knee-jerk reaction to the tragedy of 9/11.

“The September 11 massacres have made tightening America’s borders an urgent priority…To prevent future attacks, the nation must dramatically overhaul the lax way it approaches immigration. Doing that will require screening foreigners who want to enter the country more carefully when they apply for visas overseas, scrutinizing them closely at the border itself, and monitoring them systematically once they are inside the country.”

Talk about an endorsement for NSA wiretapping. Immigrants went from being non-American (yet) to being un-American (ever). The UN described the challenge for migrants in late 2001:

“Migrants were suddenly regarded with more suspicion than before, and whether they were asylum seekers, refugees, or economically-motivated, many were being seen, unjustifiably, as potential enemies. Prior to 11 September, discussions on migration focused on issues such as integrating migrants into multicultural host societies…discussions now focused almost exclusively on security.”

In other words, if you looked or sounded like you came from another country, you were not worthy of America’s unilateral trust. A little bit of our favor, yes, but certainly not all of it. Airplanes, hotels, and stores were filling up with suspicious eyes and preconceived judgments. None of the 9/11 hijackers had crossed into the United States illegally, yet the rationality of such evidence gave way to a growing pandemic of infinite fears about the potential of future attacks and the sudden push for stronger security at the border. This was the new Cold War.

Fox returned to the White House just a few weeks after 9/11 and found a president with vastly different priorities than those that had dominated the conversation on September 5. As a Florida Congressman put it, “the chances of opening up a broader immigration reform are dead.”

With so many Americans vulnerable and shaken by the collapse of the World Trade Centers on national television, it became easy to follow the lead of the president, believing that border security was far more important than immigration reform. Unfortunately, the byproduct of heightened security was the gradual demonization of existing immigrants, both legal and illegal. A strange name, an unfamiliar religious practice, or even an odd accent could easily earn the disgust of an otherwise neighborly American.

By December 2003, the Bush Administration seemed open to renewing the discussion over immigration reform. But their reasons were suspect. In particular, Tom Ridge, Director of Homeland Security, believed that there were far too many people in the country we didn’t know. Finding a solution to illegal immigration, he thought, would pave the way for smoking out any hidden cells of terror.

A few weeks later, in January 2004, Bush and Fox spoke again. At this point, the American president was willing to consider the possibility of granting some, but not all illegal immigrants a path to citizenship without being forced to return home. Unfortunately, this proved a political time bomb in both parties, with Republicans and Democrats each arguing that illegal immigrants needed to wait in line behind anyone else who was coming through legally.

Pew Research Center conducted a study between 2000 and 2006 regarding public opinion on immigration. Specifically, the survey questioned whether immigrants had become a drain or a benefit to American society. In 2000, Americans largely saw immigrants as an asset for the U.S. economy.  But by 2006, that number was down to 41 percent, with 53 percent of Americans believing they should “go home” to their countries of origin.

Take note of the wording in the survey.

Across the nation, the line between legal and illegal immigrants was quickly fading. If you were illegal, you needed to go home. But if you were legal, you were still a burden.

Out of this growing cynicism emerged a presidential figure upon which Americans would either attempt to purge themselves of ethnic doubts or entertain themselves with ongoing suspicions. The nation proved somewhat equally divided over the characterization of Barack Obama in 2008, with a sufficient number of voters choosing to praise his seemingly universal appeal and other voters choosing to raise doubts and suspicions about the authenticity of his American citizenship.

Those who partook (and may still partake) in the latter conspiracies have often seemed much more eager to prove that he is entirely un-American than they are eager to prove that he is simply unqualified for the presidency based on Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution. In other words, the search for Constitutional “proof” against his right to be president was being lost in a more concentrated objective: prove that he is un-American and you prove that he doesn’t belong in America with the rest of us.

Several years before he reached the White House, Obama described himself as the figure upon which all Americans would, at times, expel their ideas.

“I am new enough on the national political scene that I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views… Precisely because I’ve watched the press cast me in a light that can be hard to live up to, I am mindful of how rapidly that process can work in reverse… For the broad public at least, I am who the media says I am. I say what they say I say. I become who they say I’ve become.”

Immigration reform has much, much more to do with our collective psyche than it does with legislators in Washington. The trouble is, our social conscience is constantly at odds with itself. As a whole, we don’t really know what we want when it comes to immigration. Have we reached our capacity on naturalized citizens? Is it time to close up shop? Should we be open to all? Should we monitor and wiretap incoming visitors just to ensure our safety?

(Poor Snowden. We love him for telling us what we already know, but we hate him for making us take it seriously.)

During Obama’s first year, immigration reform came up several times. He opened a conversation in June, then became cautiously optimistic in August:

“We have convened a meeting of all the relevant stakeholders, and Secretary Napolitano is working with the group to start creating the framework for a comprehensive immigration reform… [but] there are many members of the Republican Party who think now that I am an illegal immigrant.”

Despite a grain of humor in his words, the reality was unmistakable. Here was an elected president talking about immigration reform in a country where a growing number of citizens were doubtful of his right to call himself a citizen. It wasn’t that he might have been born somewhere else. It was that if he was born somewhere else, then he didn’t belong here.

So goes the conversation about immigration reform in the dueling chambers of Congress. Send them back. Keep them here. Either way, the terms legal and illegal are now just the adjectives we use to color an even dirtier word in the 21st Century American Lexicon: immigrant.