The Migration-Related Legacy of the 9/11 Attacks: Positive Security Reforms and Scapegoating Those in Need of Protection

The Migration-Related Legacy of the 9/11 Attacks: Positive Security Reforms and Scapegoating Those in Need of Protection

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.

Some of these changes served to modernize the US immigration system, making it safer and more efficient for immigrants and native-born US citizens alike. For example, the United States improved vetting and screening procedures and established a National Targeting Center (NTC) to identify high-risk travelers before they board planes. The center has the capacity to screen for terrorist threats, as well as prevent the spread of disease by setting up airport checkpoints for potentially exposed travelers.

The changes allowed the United States to continue to safely welcome immigrants and refugees for the past 20 years, and to enjoy the immense contributions both groups make to the nation. Because the number of refugees in need of protection worldwide has increased from 12.1 million at the time of the 9/11 attacks to 20.7 million today, the need for a robust US refugee program has rarely (if ever) been greater.

Other changes have been politically motivated, a poor use of resources, and left migrants in dangerous situations. For example, as the budget and staffing of the Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection skyrocketed in the years following 9/11. Yet, these agencies operated with insufficient oversight and abuses against migrants have remained unchecked.

In addition, politicians and the media have framed refugee resettlement as a national security threat, invoking the September 11th attacks. Remarkably, this has occurred even in response to efforts to protect Afghans who worked closely with US forces, development programs, and non-governmental organizations at great risk to themselves and their families.

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.” Still, the perception of threat has been well-cultivated and has harmed refugees.

In 2020, the Center for Migration Studies and Refugee Council USA collaborated on a national survey of refugees and those who work with them. When asked to identify the main false ideas about the US Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), the top misconception identified by respondents – 82 percent of refugees and 88 percent of non-refugees – was the idea that “refugees pose a security risk to US citizens.” This false idea impacts the lives of refugees and their ability to integrate. When asked about their main challenges, 30 percent of refugee respondents identified “false understandings or misperceptions of refugees in the news” and 30 percent identified “false understandings or misperceptions of refugees in their community.”

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

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 high levels and permanent solutions to their plight have not nearly kept pace with the need, raising immense human security concerns. As Michael Chertoff argued in the same 2016 interview, 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.

The United States is in position to welcome refugees and, particularly now, it must take a leadership role to encourage other nations to do the same. Returning to its historic global leadership role in refugee protection will make the United States stronger and safer.


September 10, 2021