Repercussions of September 11, 2001

The September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon apparently by Arab nationals has had serious repercussions for people of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent and for immigrants in general. The anti-immigrant movement took full advantage of the events to argue that immigration restriction was necessary to prevent further attacks. Commentators and politicians immediately began speaking of the vulnerability of the United States as an "open society" saying that the country could only gain security by compromising freedoms. Many began to claim that increased surveillance and racial profiling were necessary security measures. The INS expanded its unique power to detain noncitizens without charging them and many people were held for days without access to their attorneys.

The USA PATRIOT Act, a 342-page law with sweeping impact, rushed through Congress in six weeks with no public debate. The act gives the Executive branch unparalleled powers of surveillance, detention and punishment over both citizens and noncitizens with virtually no checks and balances. Along with more diligent use of existing statutes such as ones concerning material witnesses and immigration control, this act will undoubtedly have negative effects on noncitizens and government critics. It will only serve to increase anti-immigration sentiment. In addition George W. Bush signed an executive order allowing for noncitizens to be tried in secret military tribunals, which need not meet constitutional standards. This furthers a two- tiered system of civil rights based on citizenship.

The attack also exacerbated the pre-existing economic downturn, which provided even more fuel for immigration restriction. The movement for legalization of undocumented immigrants was dealt a serious blow, as were proposals for guest worker programs.

Immigrants and the September 11 Attacks

What the Anti-Immigrant Right Says

Many anti-immigrant groups and commentators were eager to proclaim that this attack could have been avoided if the U.S. immigration policy were not so lax:

  • Dan Stein of FAIR said, "The nation's defense against terrorism has been seriously eroded by the efforts of open-borders advocates, and the innocent victims of today's terrorist attacks have paid the price."
  • The White nationalist group, the Council of Conservative Citizens, called for segregating "ourselves from the Arabs, Muslims, and/or all others who will do us harm."
  • Mainstream anti-immigrant groups cited polls showing that the public overwhelmingly approved of racial profiling, at least in some instances, of Arab and Muslim Americans.
  • The Center for Immigration Studies pointed out that increasing surveillance of immigrants is broadly popular and does not infringe on the civil rights of U.S. citizens.
Anti-immigrant groups and commentators, along with many politicians, presented plans for stemming the threat of future attacks through measures that fell into three broad categories:
  • preventing unauthorized entries on the borders and at other ports of entry.
  • decreasing and strictly monitoring authorized entries of foreigners.
  • increasing the federal government's powers of surveillance, detention and deportation of all noncitizens.
Within this framework, groups have called for:
  • armed military patrol and increased border patrol on the United States' borders with Mexico and Canada,
  • a nine month immigration moratorium,
  • more in-depth background checks of visa applicants,
  • tracking of foreign students and other visa-holders,
  • a ban on foreign students from specific Middle-Eastern countries,
  • a computerized identification verification system for all citizens and noncitizens,
  • broad powers to detain and deport noncitizens with any connections to "terrorist" groups,
  • interagency cooperation on issues related to immigration, law enforcement and intelligence gathering.
Examples: Federation for American Immigration Reform. (2001). "Immigration Control: A Handbook of Recommendations What Must Be Done in the Aftermath of the New Super-Terrorism," September 20.; Steven A. Camarota (of the Center for Immigration Studies), "Immigration and Terrorism," Testimony prepared for the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on technology, Terrorism, and Government Information, October 12, 2001.


In the face of a great tragedy, the anti-immigrant movement has chosen to opportunistically promote its cause. The failure of the FBI, CIA, federal government, and airport security to prevent this calamity has also provided the opportunity to assign blame. It is more palatable to these authorities to proclaim that they lack the necessary laws to do their job, than to admit any failure on their part. All these factors have contributed to a call for greater restrictions on the civil rights of immigrants and have led to abuses of power by the government. As part of an investigation into the attack, the INS has detained over 1000 people, the largest number of whom are of Saudi Arabian, Egyptian or Pakistani descent, mostly on immigration infractions or crimes unrelated to terrorism.1 There have been complaints of mistreatment of detainees including instances of physical abuse while in INS custody.2

Even before September 11, immigrants could be prosecuted on the basis of evidence that they could not see and many were held in detention for years under such circumstances. The USA PATRIOT Act and military tribunals further infringe on noncitizens' civil rights, including rights to due process, judicial review, and a public trial. The constitutionality of these laws will not be tested in the courts for years. In the meantime many innocent immigrants will be unjustly detained, prosecuted, and deported without access to the rights citizens take for granted. Civil rights should not be a privilege of citizenship, but should cover citizens and noncitizens equally.

On the surface this kind of heavy-handed response is intended to make the public feel safer. However these strategies are not only ineffective, but also counterproductive. The vast majority of immigrants are not involved in criminal activity, let alone a plot to attack the U.S. government or its people. Innocent immigrants who rightly fear detention given their lack of rights in the face of broad INS powers will not be willing to come forward if they have any relevant information. The government needs their cooperation, but immigrants cannot trust a system that advocates the sharing of information between government agencies and racial profiling, and does not even have the appearance of treating all people equally. In this context the "S" visa, available to immigrants who provide information to the government in criminal prosecutions, is unlikely to encourage immigrants' cooperation with law enforcement.

Significantly, this kind of activity by government authorities legitimizes and reinforces people's fears that immigrants are disloyal. Also when law enforcement engages in racial profiling, it aggravates racial hostilities in communities. One result has been the dramatic increase in hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims, or those perceived to be, since September 11.3 The government's policies need to coincide with its rhetoric on multiculturalism and tolerance because actions speak louder than words.

The government can take many steps that do not limit civil rights to prevent future attacks. The FBI and CIA already had the powers necessary to gather intelligence and track down those planning terrorist actions, even before the passage of the PATRIOT Act. The federal government can put into place an effective airport security system following the models of many other nations. The United States can share information and resources with other nations through a global commission to prevent terrorism. The government should work towards increasing security through these kinds of measures that do not infringe on people's civil liberties. Expanded detention, deportation, and surveillance powers do not increase safety. They do, however, make it easier for the government to scapegoat immigrants and to oppose individuals and groups whose ideologies it finds objectionable. This attitude and misuse of power must be consistently and rigorously challenged.

End Notes

1. Josh Meyer, "Ashcroft Defends U.S. Anti-Terrorism Tactics, Saying That ‘We Are at War.'" Los Angeles Times, Dec. 7, 2001; Rone Tempest, "U.S. Detentions Now Sore Point in Pakistan," Los Angeles Times, Nov. 8, 2001; James Sterngold, "10 Arrested in Visa Cases in San Diego," New York Times, Dec. 13, 2001.

2. Alisa Solomon, "Cracking Down on Immigrants - Again," The Village Voice, October 3-9, 2001.,fsolomon,28668,1.html (January 10, 2002).

3. See "Hate in the News: Violence Against Arab Americans and Muslims," December 11, 2001. (January 8, 2002).

This article first appeared in Defending Immigrant Rights: An Activist Resource Kit, published by Political Research Associates, © 2002.

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