Sept. 11, 2012— -- From the moment the first plane hit the North Tower, the immigration system in the United States was destined to change.
The attacks on September 11, 2001 certainly didn't start the country's immigration debate, but it did alter the course of the discussion.
Immigration was already a staple of the nightly news through the 1990s into the 2000s. After a series of free trade agreements realigned economies in Mexico and Central America, millions of migrants headed to northern Mexico and the U.S. looking for work. Suddenly, securing the U.S.-Mexico border –- what had once been as diaphanous as the line between New York and New Jersey -– became a national priority.
Still, prior to 9/11, President George W. Bush could best be described as an immigration moderate. Many expected Bush, who routinely and proudly spoke Spanish to his constituency, to pass some type of immigration reform. In the Senate, he had a strong ally in Arizona Republican John McCain, who would later cosponsor a reform bill with Democrat Ted Kennedy.
But instead of embracing immigration reform, the country found itself contracting in the decade after the terrorist attacks, according to David Burnham, the co-director of Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), an organization that gathers government data.
"After 9/11, the Bush administration tried to see immigration enforcement as a way to fight terrorism," Burnham said. "And it's just not."
While immigration policy has certainly differed during the Bush and Obama presidencies, I decided to take a look at some of the most significant changes to the immigration system since the 2001 terrorist attacks. Obviously this is a topic that could fill up volumes, but we can at least touch on the major themes here.
1- Increased funding
In 2002, President Bush passed the Homeland Security Act, creating an umbrella entity charged with keeping the U.S. safe from future terrorist attacks. The new department would oversee a range of agencies, including those dealing with immigration — U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB).
With the creation of the Department of Homeland Security came an avalanche of federal funding. Last year, a pair of economists estimated that the creation of Homeland Security cost the U.S. $589 billion from 2001-2011.
2- Spending on deportations
Immigration enforcement increased dramatically after September 11. Immigrant removals — including deportations and so-called voluntary departures — went from roughly 200,000 people in 2001 to nearly double that in 2011.
One reason for the increase in deportations is the growth in the undocumented population, according to Chung-Wha Hong, the executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. But another is the increased spending on border security.
"A lot of it is super-funding of enforcement activities," Hong says. "[Customs and Border Protection's] budget is almost $12 billion; that's an enormous amount of resources."
Despite increased spending, unauthorized immigration continued over the span of the decade, with the undocumented population rising from an estimated 8.5 million in 2000 to nearly 12 million in 2008.
3- Removing criminals — even those we're not worried about
Deportations have doubled in the last decade, but criminal deportations have increased at a much higher clip.
In 2001, there were roughly 18,000 criminal deportations compared to a projected 91,000 in 2012 — roughly a 400 percent increase, according to data from TRAC.
In 2011, ICE reported a record-high 188,000 criminal removals, which includes both deportations and voluntary departures.
But the figures should be looked at critically. Many of those deported have never actually been convicted of a crime, since simply being charged with a crime is grounds for deportation. Of those who have been convicted, the crime may have been minor or non-violent, including a prior immigration infraction or drug possession.
"The Obama administration claims that more of the people they're deporting have been convicted of a criminal violation, although our data says that may not be true," says TRAC's David Burnham. "What they mean by a criminal violation is someone arrested bicycling on the sidewalk; really they've defined everything as criminal. And they're using that to get rid of people."
4 - Turning local police officers into immigration agents
One of the reasons for the spike in deportations during the Obama administration is a relatively new immigration enforcement program called Secure Communities. First launched in 2008, the program is now in effect in states across the country, and will be national by 2013.
Secure Communities requires local law enforcement to share the fingerprints of arrestees with Homeland Security. The prints are run through a database, and if the search turns up an immigration hold, the arrestee can be detained until federal immigration authorities arrive.
The program empowers local police officers to serve as de facto immigration agents, whether they want that responsibility or not. If a police officer arrests someone for running a stop sign, the officer might be effectively threatening the arrestee with deportation. Likewise, an undocumented crime victim fearful of being accidentally arrested, fingerprinted, and deported may be less likely to come forward with tips for authorities.
5- Tying immigration enforcement to corporate profits
Considering the billions of dollars allotted to immigration enforcement in the past decade, it's not surprising that private businesses want to get onboard. Enter the Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group, the two companies that manage most of the country's private immigration detention centers.
In Washington, the industry's lobbyists have influenced policy to secure growing numbers of federal inmates in its facilities, while encouraging Congress to increase funding for detention bedspace. Here in this southern Arizona community, private prison companies share the spoils of their business with the local government, effectively giving area law enforcement an incentive to apprehend as many undocumented immigrants as they can.
This confluence of forces has contributed to a doubling of the ranks of immigrant detainees, to about 400,000 a year. Nearly half are now held in private prisons, up from one-fourth a decade ago, according to the Department of Homeland Security. The two largest for-profit prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America and The GEO Group, Inc., have more than doubled their revenues from the immigrant detention business since 2005, according to securities filings.
By delegating the operation of detention centers to private companies, the U.S. has created a system where more deportations and longer detentions mean increased profits, giving companies a financial incentive to lobby for stricter immigration laws.
Although this review hardly scratches the surface, we can definitely see trends that have emerged since September 11.
More federal funds are available for immigration enforcement and deportations, even though those efforts seem to do almost nothing to prevent terrorism. In fact, fewer terrorists have been placed in deportation proceedings since 9/11, according to TRAC.
It's worth noting that the 9/11 terrorists entered the country on temporary visas and had authorization (if fraudulently obtained) to be in the U.S. Yet in the 11 years since the attack, we've devoted enormous resources to securing the southern border and deporting non-criminal immigrants. The leading countries of origin for people removed from the U.S. in 2011 were Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
In the run-up to the presidential election, however, as both candidates have begun to court the Latino electorate, President Obama enacted a new deferred action program, which will give an estimated 1.7 million young undocumented immigrants – 15 percent of the undocumented population – a chance to stay in the country and get a work permit. The policy shift seems to conflict with the president's broader immigration agenda, but for those who qualify, it could provide life-changing relief.
"It's the first time in decades that there's actually an affirmative benefit that you can apply for," says the New York Immigration Coalition's Hong. "Both in the impact of the benefit and the scale of application, deferred action is really one of the most positive developments of the last decade, that, otherwise, was really categorized by heavy enforcement."