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:
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:
- 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.
Within this framework, groups have called for:
- 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.
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. http://www.fairus.org/html/08318109.htm; 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.
- 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
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
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
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.
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. http://www.villagevoice.com/news/0140,fsolomon,28668,1.html (January 10, 2002).
3. See "Hate in the News: Violence Against Arab Americans and Muslims," December 11, 2001.
http://www.tolerance.org/news/article_hate.jsp?id=278 (January 8, 2002).
This article first appeared in Defending Immigrant Rights: An Activist Resource Kit, published by Political Research Associates, © 2002.