Limiting new citizens won't prevent terrorism

May 10, 2010 

The arrest of Pakistani-born American citizen Faisal Shahzad for the failed car-bomb attack in Times Square has led to a flurry of suggestions that the U.S. government is allowing too many people to become citizens and too quickly.

But do these allegations make sense? Would we be safer if we drastically reduced the number of immigrants granted U.S. citizenship every year? According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the number of people who become naturalized U.S. citizens has gone up from 120,000 a year in the 1960s to 210,000 a year in the 1980s to 500,000 a year in the 1990s to 743,715 last year. The increase in U.S. permanent residency papers -- or green cards -- issued is similar, the figures show.

Following the news of Shahzad's arrest, cable television anchors flashed the figures of the rising U.S. foreign-born population on the screen -- from 14 million in 1920 to 38 million today -- and wondered whether Washington has not become too generous when it comes to granting citizenship.

In the blogosphere, a headline by AOL News Washington correspondent Andrea Stone asked: "Was route to citizenship too easy for Shahzad?" Conservative anti- immigration crusader Michelle Malkin said in her own blog that "jihadists have knowingly and deliberately exploited our lax immigration and entrance policies." But at a time when the country is grappling with Arizona's xenophobic anti- immigration law, there are several reasons why we shouldn't jump to the conclusion that reducing immigration would protect us from terrorism.

First, there are many U.S.-born terrorists. Just remember the 1995 bombing of an Oklahoma City federal building by Timothy McVeigh, which left 168 dead and injured more than 500, or "Unabomber" Theodore John Kaczynski, who carried out a campaign of deadly mail bombings in the '80s and '90s.

Even among Islamic terrorists or jihad sympathizers, many are native-born Americans. You may remember Jose Padilla, the New York-born young man who was found guilty of supporting terrorism, or the "Lackawanna Six" Yemeni- Americans from Buffalo, N.Y., who were arrested in 2002 and later pleaded guilty to having ties to al-Qaida. Or most of the seven Miami Liberty City men charged with plotting terrorist acts with al-Qaida, or "Jihad Jane," the blue-eyed blonde from Pennsylvania who was indicted recently on charges of trying to recruit jihad fighters over the Internet.

"There is a broad spectrum of individuals who radicalize for different reasons: native- born Americans, naturalized Americans, and immigrants," says Robert Cressey, a former counter- terrorism adviser in the Clinton and Bush administrations. "It doesn't make sense to focus on any single one of those groups."

Furthermore, claims that immigration drives up crime rates are often wrong. Contrary to backers of Arizona's immigration laws claim that they had to do something to stop crime by illegal immigrants, Arizona has become safer since undocumented immigrants began pouring into the state in the 1990s, the Los Angeles Times reported Sunday.

Frank Sharry, head of the pro- immigration reform America's Voice group, told me that "opponents of immigration are always trying to make the connection between immigration and terrorism, drugs or criminal activities in an attempt to demonize all immigrants. It doesn't work, because the American people know better."

Granted, it's imperative the U.S. authorities do a good job screening people trying to enter this country. But we should keep in mind that the 24 U.S. terrorist incidents that occurred between 2002 and 2005 were carried out by domestic extremists, and that many of those were U.S.-born Americans, according to FBI data cited in a recent Council of Foreign Relations backgrounder.

The solution lies in improving intelligence, so that we can identify people who are potential national security threats -- native-born Americans, naturalized Americans or immigrants.

Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for The Miami Herald; e-mail: aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com.

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