Book review: The Closing of the American Border

Recommended reading: “The Closing of the American Border” by Edward Alden, which I reviewed in the newspaper earlier this week. I’ll paste the review after the jump.

Five of the 19 terrorists who attacked the US on September 11, 2001, had broken US immigration laws. Their leader Mohammed Atta had previously overstayed a visa and should not have been allowed back in. As a Justice Department official put it: “The abuse of US immigration laws was instrumental in the deaths of nearly 3,000 people.” It was not going to happen again.

The government set about tightening the rules and their enforcement. Six months after the attacks, Atta’s application for a student visa to take flying lessons was approved, and a letter saying so arrived at the flight-training school in Florida. The story caused a fresh outcry. The agency responsible was purged, shut down and replaced. The rules were tightened again, and zealously enforced.

There has not been another attack – and Edward Alden, a former Washington bureau chief for the FT and now a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, recognises that foreign terrorists find it much harder to get in. The trouble is, so does everybody else, including people that the US needs. On balance, Alden argues, the new regime has done more harm than good even in narrow security terms, to say nothing of the wider human and economic costs. Few who read his compellingly argued and meticulously researched book will be inclined to disagree.

The Closing of the American Borde r tells heart-rending stories of immigrants who have lived for years in the US, maybe serving the country with distinction as doctors or scientists, running businesses and paying their taxes, giving no grounds whatever for suspicion that they may have ties to terrorists, and yet fall foul of the system.

They may have come from Pakistan or Somalia or they may be Muslim: that can suffice for them to be denied re-entry if they should leave, while inquiries are undertaken. People guilty of petty infractions of complex immigration rules have been handcuffed, jailed, thrown out and refused permission to return. The system has taken on a cruel and tyrannical character – and understandably so, since it is what America’s voters and politicians appear to want. Pity the immigration officer who gives the next Atta his visa.

In recounting the history of the immigration system post-9/11, the book tells of the quarrels within the administration over how to mend it – and how to balance reducing the risk of letting terrorists in while staying open to the skilled immigrants that the country wants and once welcomed. In these debates, as the book explains, the false argument for reducing risk to zero mostly won the day.

Alden blames the administration’s single-minded focus on the war on terror. “[T]he way Bush defined the post-9/11 war on terrorism – as a global struggle for survival with a foe he deemed as menacing as Nazi Germany or the nuclear-armed Soviet Union – made a nuanced and proportionate response almost impossible,” he writes. Is that quite right? Terrorists might very well acquire a nuclear weapon, and 9/11 showed that some would have no compunction about using it. One does not need to argue that the terrorist threat has been blown out of proportion to find the country’s current attitude to border security ill-advised. As Alden argues, the approach most likely puts the country at a net disadvantage in the war on terror.

First, it misdirects resources. Vanishingly few immigrants are terrorists, so it makes little sense to see immigration policy as part of counterterrorism policy. The effort spent on combing through immigrants, as though each might pose a threat, denies resources to intelligence-gathering and other more purposeful anti-terror efforts.

Then there is the economic harm. US companies continually complain that they can no longer hire the best people and bring them in. It is easier to take the work to them by investing abroad. The country has thrived all through its history by attracting the best and brightest of the world. An enfeebled US will find all of its goals – including national security – harder to achieve.

Worst of all, it is an approach that loses friends abroad rather than making them. Immigrants come to the US because they admire it – and they find ordinary Americans to be the most welcoming and hospitable people in the world. These visitors become unpaid US ambassadors to friends and families abroad. The government’s institutionalised hostility to immigrants is undoing much of that benefit.

Alden quotes a governor who travels abroad to find investors for his state: “When you go to Europe, the whole first half of every meeting is about how they’ve been travelling to the US for 20 years and now they’re treated like criminals by the immigration system.”

This is not the price you pay to win the war on terror. It is how you lose it.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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