What’s the relationship between national security and immigration?

Ali Noorani, President and CEO of National Immigration Forum, and Elizabeth Neumann, former Homeland Security official, argue that the current immigration system undermines national security.

What’s the relationship between national security and immigration?
May 27, 2021

Two groups dominate the immigration-policy debate in the United States: those who see immigration as a threat, and those who see it as a humanitarian imperative. Lost in the discussion are those calling for a sober assessment of the national-security implications of immigration policy. The National Immigration Forum (Forum) recently launched a new initiative focused on this area, the Council on National Security and Immigration, seeking to bring center-right national-security voices to the debate.  

Forum’s argument is simple yet cross-cutting: The current immigration system actually undermines national security, and a more efficient and effective approach would improve both our immigration system and our national security. What follows is an edited conversation with Ali Noorani, President and CEO of National Immigration Forum, and Elizabeth Neumann, former Homeland Security official in the Trump Administration and current member of Forum’s Council on National Security and Immigration. 

CKI: What is the focus and mission of National Immigration Forum? 

Noorani: Our mission is to advocate for the value of immigrants and immigration to the nation. The DNA of the organization is coalition building. Over the last several years, we have paid particular attention to engaging center-right, faith, national-security, law-enforcement, and business leaders.  

CKI: You recently started a Council on National Security and Immigration.  

Noorani: We thought the immigration discussion writ large was lacking center-right national-security experts speaking in a constructive way to the needs for immigration reform.  

Neumann: There’s a lot of misinformation out there about immigration and national security. I do not believe that we need to reduce or stop immigration for national-security reasons. In fact, being an open and welcoming society will strengthen national security. 

With this initiative, we aim to counteract the narrative that has started to dominate the right — an isolationist, nationalist picture of what the country needs to be.  

CKI: What does this look like in practice?   

Neumann: We bring experienced national-security voices to the table to explain why immigration and security are complementary. We think that the federal government can direct resources toward pressing 21st century threats and proactively address vulnerabilities in our outdated immigration system. The longer the government goes without addressing the outdated system, the harder it is for agencies to do their jobs.  

For example, the backlog of asylum cases is huge — over 1 million. The ability to request asylum is a legal right under international treaty — if somebody makes a claim of credible fear, they have to be processed through the asylum system. A large percentage of people that present and get adjudicated are determined to not be eligible for asylum. The bar is pretty high to meet the test. From start to finish the process can take a minimum of three and up to seven years, in large part because of the lack of resources: not enough asylum judges and case officers.  

Consider the propaganda the cartels are messaging in Central America: There are opportunities in the U.S., we can get you in, we’ll teach you what to say, and it’ll be five to seven years before your claim is heard. That’s a lot of time to live in the United States. You can more than make up the money that you paid the cartel to get you in, and maybe you’re in that small percentage that is granted asylum. And so people take a chance. And it’s a very dangerous chance, because the cartels are violent and abuse people on the journey. They don’t care if you make it as long as they get their money. You’re taking a sizable risk.  

The situation in Central America is dire. People are facing economic hardship, gang violence, and natural disasters. Coming to the United States and claiming asylum seems like a very plausible solution to a very desperate situation. If we could hire more judges and asylum officers and reduce that million-plus backlog, we could get people answers quickly. And that’s good for those that truly need asylum. And if you know you’re not eligible, and the U.S. will process your claim in months, you might not be willing to spend thousands of dollars to a cartel and take that risk.  

Noorani: The role of the council is to equip center-right, national-security experts so they have the tools and data and policy background they need to feel comfortable making these cases, whether to policymakers or to the public. There are a lot of people who come to this issue as national-security experts but not as immigration experts. So we’re trying to build that knowledge base. 

Neumann: The last time the law was updated was in the 1980s. And since then, lots of court orders have been laid on top of the system. The system doesn’t make a lot of sense if your goal is to promote both economic and national security. 

Part of the problem is that immigration gets used as a political tool — to raise money, to try to get votes — instead of addressed as a serious issue that needs good governing. 

CKI: Are you focused on specific kinds of immigration or all kinds?  

Noorani: The council has not zeroed in on one issue to the exclusion of other issues that may come up.  

Neumann: That’s right.  

I will say that what we’re seeing on the southern border is of heartbreaking concern. Many unaccompanied children are arriving, and the infrastructure is not there to care for them. We know that the Biden administration is working as hard as they can to build up that infrastructure. But part of the solution is recognizing the root causes that drive people out of Central America.  

The number of displaced persons around the world is increasing. We’re close to 80 million people. And what we are seeing worldwide is likely to continue. We have to figure out how we help people when they’re displaced. These populations are susceptible to recruitment into human trafficking, gangs, and terrorism. That is the long-term security concern we need to be cognizant of. My hope is that our immigration policies send a signal to the rest of the world about how we perceive and care for those who are vulnerable.  

CKI: Are you emphasizing that immigration does not threaten national security, or that immigration positively enhances national security?  

Neumann: Both, really.  

Remember that Trump began running for President shortly after a number of tragic moments. There was the Christmas Day underwear bomber on a plane in 2009, the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, and other foiled plots. And there was this sense that our screening and vetting is weak; we’re letting people in we shouldn’t. So the Trump Administration saw this problem, and started implementing executive orders that slowed down the process, targeting the refugee community in particular.  

Do we need enhanced vetting? Yes. And is there more to be done? Absolutely. Are we pretty good at it, compared to where we were 10 years ago? We are amazingly good at it. I think we even overcorrected, and we’re probably at a point where we need to recalibrate how we determine who goes on a watch list.  

Refugees are the most vetted group that comes to the United States. The procedures for vetting them are very well run. The problem is it takes too long to process people. I was in Egypt in 2018, and they were processing people that had applied for refugee status back in 2010. That’s too long for people who are displaced. Keeping people in limbo like that creates vulnerability factors that allow them to be susceptible to getting trafficked or recruited into a gang or terrorism. By delaying applicants’ processing, you create a national-security problem. 

When immigrants come to the United States, whether it’s refugees or other types of immigrants and student visas, the data shows they add economic benefit and strengthen our communities.  

Noorani: The Forum has pulled together quite a bit of research on the fiscal and economic impact of immigrants. Suffice it to say that all immigrants, regardless of status, contribute substantially to all levels of society.  

CKI: How has the wider immigration-reform community responded to your effort?  

Neumann: There’s always a novelty when a Trump official comes out against something that is associated with Trump. And we have a handful of former Trump officials that are part of this group, along with former Bush officials and a member of Congress. The hardest part about being a moderate in this debate is that the media is interested in the loud voices, the outrage. It’s hard to focus the conversation on what we should do. Perhaps the answer is to have these conversations at the negotiating table, not in the media.   

Noorani: The movement writ large has seen the Council as a net plus. This is a set of experts and expertise that was missing previously. Their expertise and influence helps shape the debate in a very constructive way.  

CKI: It sounds like lots of opportunity lies ahead.  

Neumann: I’m very grateful that CKI has invested in this; there are few groups out there interested in reasoned, moderate approaches. 

Noorani: We’ve drawn on the experience of the Institute across a range of issues. It was a real pleasure to work with CKI staff to identify the gaps in our strategy, and then get the help to launch big, important efforts. 

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