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A Short History of Immigration Policy since 9/11

By Erika Lee, associate professor of History and Asian American Studies at the University of Minnesota. IHRC Affiliated Faculty

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 mark a definitive turning point in many aspects of American life. We tend to think in terms of "before 9/11" and "after 9/11." On the morning of the attacks, I was getting ready to teach my Asian American history class at the University of Minnesota. I can't remember what the prepared lecture for the day was, but I do remember abandoning the lesson plan and instead spending the next hour talking with students about what we knew and what might happen. Given the subject matter for our course, we were highly aware of America's history of racial profiling, race-based immigration restriction, and incarceration. Many of us wondered aloud if Muslims or Arabs might experience similar treatment that many Asians did before and during World War Two.

It is now clear that U.S. immigration policy is dramatically different than it was before the attacks. President Bush had identified immigration reform as one of his top priorities upon his inauguration in January, 2001. He even traveled to Mexico to discuss immigration with President Vicente Fox in February, 2001. Just seven months later, however, the terrorist attacks "exposed major holes" in immigration enforcement, and immigration became IHincreasingly identified as a national security issue. There would be no support for immigration reform until 2006. "Migrant reform: 9/11's role debated" (Arizona Republic)

While Congress has not passed any major new immigration laws in the past five years, several changes have been put into place at the administrative level. The government's surveillance of immigrants already in this country has increased. In December of 2002, the Justice Department implemented SEVIS – the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System – which requires all international students and exchange visitors to register with the federal government with their names, addresses, majors, course load, graduation date, etc. and update that information regularly. The Immigration and Naturalization Service undertook a separate registration of men from 24 (mostly Muslim) countries. They are required to be fingerprinted, photographed, and interviewed by the government annually. At the same time, deportations increased. This year, the Department of Homeland Security sharply increased the number of workplace raids. "Immigration Movement Struggles to Regain Momentum Built in Spring Marches" (New York Times)
Equally dramatic was the transfer of all immigration services and border enforcement procedures to the newly-created Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on March 1, 2003, a move that critics argued would result in the conflation of all immigration as a security threat.

Within this context, the debate over immigration policy flared up again in 2005. The concern over the lax enforcement that allowed terrorists into the country was transferred to Mexican immigration. In December, 2005, the House passed an immigration bill that increased border security and also made illegal residence in the country a federal crime rather than a civil infraction. The bill inspired hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their supporters to call for comprehensive immigration reform, including the legalization of illegal immigrants. See
"Democracy at Work" from the IHRC blog, March 30, 2006.
The Senate negotiated a bi-partisan comprehensive immigration reform bill that included a guest-worker program and a path to citizenship in addition to tighter border security.

But as we enter mid-term elections, comprehensive immigration reform is all but dead, and analysts are questioning whether the "fledgling immigrant rights movement" can transform itself into a political force. While labor day rallies failed to garner an expected high turnout, House Republicans announced that they would "move swiftly to pass legislation…to build 700 miles of fencing along the Mexican border" to stop illegal immigrants. See "House Republicans Will Push for 700 Miles of Fencing on Mexico Border" New York Times. and "Immigration Overhaul Takes a Back Seat as Campaign Season Begins" New York Times.

On the five-year anniversary of 9/11, America has been split into two camps on immigration once again. And it seems as if the camp that views immigration as a threat is currently winning.


Erika Lee
Associate Professor
Director of Undergraduate Studies
Department of History
University of Minnesota
614 Social Sciences Building
267 19th Ave South
Minneapolis, MN 55455
work: 612/624-9569
fax: 612/624-7096

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