War on Immigrants to
Fight the War of Terrorism?

Lessons from the Failed War on Drugs

With exquisite opportunism, anti-immigrant groups have seized on the attacks of Sept 11 to call for reversing the emerging movement for amnesty for the millions of undocumented immigrants in our country.

Anti-immigrant groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) jumped to announce not only opposition to any plans for amnesty but support for new harsher laws to further harass millions of undocumented residents and to deny greater civil liberties to all Americans. Topping their list is a new national ID system that would allow the government to electronically track every citizen's and resident's movements, from where they are registered for school to where they work day-to-day. Attorney General John Ashcroft also weighed in with legislative proposals to sharply curtail or even obliterate the constitutional rights of immigrants through indefinite detainments and other harassment.

Given fears of terrorism, a lot of people may say a loss in civil liberties and privacy will be a small price to pay for greater security, but such a "solution" is a delusion, one that may lead to making the situation far worse. We've been down the road of promises that rolling back civil liberties was a short-cut to solving a broad-based problem -- it's call the "war on drugs" and the results have been a minimal decrease in drug use but an explosion of organized crime and violence in the illegal underground bred by government policy.

One reason immigration amnesty had been gaining ground in policy circles is that, in areas ranging from public health to labor rights, many analysts had acknowledged that past policy had just encouraged an ever expanding ring of illegal exploiters, from smugglers to employers, feeding on the mass of vulnerable undocumented residents in legal limbo. Where the AFL-CIO had once supported sanctions against employers of undocumented workers, new policy by the labor federation in support of amnesty was passed this year as union leaders saw that lesser rights for immigrants just turned them into easy targets for intimidation and sweatshop exploitation, often at the expense of other workers.

Cutting back immigrant rights is an even more dangerous policy in the context of threatened terrorism. A national ID or any other tool is unlikely to be a problem for terrorists backed by both cash and patience -- no system is fool-proof and such a system is least likely to catch such targets. However, it will likely drive the millions of already existing undocumented immigrants further underground, creating a whole network of petty illegality where such terrorists would easily hide when needed with few questions asked.

That is the lesson of the drug war -- the blurring of the lines between dangerous crime and petty actions just creates new arenas for illicit profit and expanding violence in society. You cannot criminalize the actions of millions of people without creating opportunities for extreme exploitation of those left with no recourse to normal channels of the law. Junkies turn to crime to pay for their habit, while undocumented immigrants turn to smugglers and sweatshops to care for their families. Left with little alternative in a world of poverty and hunger in developing nations, such immigrants will come to the United States whatever the cost, but those costs will just end up mounting for the rest of society.

Unsurprisingly, terrorism has thrived on the underground institutions that have risen in the shadow of the drug war. Globally, the war on drugs has created massive profits to pay for the guns that fuel local violence. Little of the price paid on the streets of America go to economic development in poor countries, but the "middle men" of smugglers skim their share, with some of those funds inevitably fueling violence of all kinds globally. Prohibition in the 1920s helped institutionalize organized crime in the United States while the drug war has done the same on a global scale. And terrorists have used that traffic to fund their efforts, thereby unmoored from the need for support from nation-states.

A new war on immigrants would merely add to the chaos and desperation on which terrorism feeds. There are tens of millions of refugees globally fleeing interstate violence and civil wars. Economic misery and desperation are driving tens of millions more out of their homes and countries. Even as we focus on the tragedy of Sept. 11, we cannot ignore the millions of Afganis displaced from decades of war in their homeland. In the face of such global misery, a war on immigrants will be not only ineffective but further undermine our security by deepening the chasms of shadow existence in our midst.

If the threat of physical terrorism will not be lessened by such attacks on immigrants and our own civil liberties, the threat of biological terrorism will be exponentially increased. With a strong public health system, the introduction of any biological agent poses relatively little threat, since any significantly lethal disease would be quickly detected and isolated. But as we isolate undocumented immigrants from that public health system, and a rigid national ID system would inevitably do that, it increases the likelihood of disease, natural or terrorist-inspired, spreading without detection to the point it may be far harder to contain.

Ultimately, the solution to drugs, excess immigration and terrorism share a basic approach -- isolate the violent elements of any community while focusing on prevention and easing the misery that drive the problem and which the extreme elements exploit. Wars and misery have been a large source of these problems; so the last thing we need are need are more "wars" as a cure.

Driving immigrants further underground is a recipe not for greater security but of exploitation. Instead, we need to address the fundamental social ills globally that drive tens of millions of people into their shadow underworld. In the case of immigration policy, the best bet is a combination of legalization of current immigrants to end their exploitation combined with social development investments in the lands from which they come to ease the pressure that force them to emigrate in the first place.

It's an old saying but still universally true -- If you want peace, work for justice. The events of Sept. 11 just reinforce that lesson in unforgettable ways.

Nathan Newman is a longtime union and community activist, a national vice president of the National Lawyers Guild and author of the forthcoming book Net Loss on Internet policy and economic inequality. Email or see

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