Eighteen Years After 9/11, National Security, and the Changes Wrought to the US Immigration and Refugee Systems

The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 caused the deaths of 2,996 people, injured more than 6,000, and left countless others mourning the loss of loved ones. New security measures since the attacks have altered the US immigration and refugee systems. These changes include more intensive screening and vetting of those seeking admission, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), heightened enforcement at the US-Mexico border, and expanded grounds of inadmissibility. Are the immigration and refugee systems secure?

2018 report from the Cato Institute documents how technology and immigration procedures have changed since 9/11 and finds that “the rate for deadly terrorists was 1 for every 379 million visa or status approvals from 2002 through 2016.” In a 2016 CMSOnAir interview, former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said: “If you were trying to place a terrorist operative in the [United States], probably the least efficient way would be the refugee resettlement program.”

In his 2016 paper, “How Robust Refugee Protection Policies Can Strengthen Human and National Security,” CMS Executive Director Donald Kerwin makes the case that refugee protection and national security should be viewed as complementary. He writes:

States have a responsibility to prevent terrorist incursions and attacks: they exist, in part, to protect the lives and rights of their residents. However, they also have a responsibility to protect members of other states who are fleeing persecution and violence. In public and political discourse, refugees are often treated as a threat to national security and, in particular, as a source and conduit for terrorism. However, robust refugee protection policies do not cause and need not exacerbate the threat of terrorism. In fact, they can diminish it. (Kerwin 2016, 86)

No admissions program is 100 percent secure, but the US immigration and refugee programs have become far more secure since 9/11, and the US refugee program is perhaps the world’s most secure refugee admissions program. At the same time, the number of forcibly displaced has reached historically unprecedented levels and permanent solutions to their plight have not nearly kept pace with the need, raising immense concerns related to human insecurity. As Michael Chertoff argued in his 2016 interview with CMS, human and national security go hand in hand:

[T]he sheer number of people moving not only puts those people themselves at risk in terms of their own security, but can cause a real dislocation in society … You also don’t want to have a situation where people are just stagnating in camps year in and year out because you’re creating essentially a hospitable environment for people to recruit extremists and criminals. So I think you’ve got to look at the system end-to-end. Part of that means dealing with countries that are failed states … Where you do have war and you do have flight, you need to have a robust system for housing people, continuing to educate them, and processing them in a secure but reasonable time frame. And frankly it’s enough of a global issue that it warrants the whole global community kicking in money to make sure that could be operated in an efficient way. And finally when people do qualify for asylum and are moved into host countries, there has to be a process in place to integrate them, get them educated, make sure they can find work so they become productive members of society …

John Thon Majok, himself a refugee, believes in the resilience and potential of refugees. Like Chertoff, he recognizes that when refugees are trapped in protracted situations, there is a risk of “possible radicalization of jobless youth who are stuck in limbo” and  that the “destabilizing effects of protracted refugee situations [can] stretch beyond the region of origin.”  In short, national security requires human security and refugee protection.


September 11,  2019