Construction crews work to erect border fencing along a levee near the Rio Grande in a remote area south of Weslaco, Texas, on Jan. 13, 2020. (CBP Photo by Glenn Fawcett)

PERSPECTIVE: Does Restricting Immigration Really Keep Us Safe from Terrorism?

It is an interesting question on when borders between states began to matter. I would think that this is a fairly recent phenomenon, for several reasons. First, the notion of a ‘nation state’ is not that old: some would cite the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia as the starting point. Secondly, it was not that long ago when most ‘nation states’ did not have the resources to police their own borders so the whole issue was moot. In any event, there are still many instances where two independent countries agree to disagree on where to draw the line of separation (Kashmir is a case in point).

In any event, borders do matter now and countries spend a lot of money and resources protecting their territory. This is especially true when it comes to our concern over terrorism and criminality. No one wants to allow bad guys to enter from abroad. We are not going back to a status quo ante because of 9/11 (as an aside, writing as a Canadian, I have fond memories of the painless travel procedures between my country and the U.S. way back when – sigh!).

On the other hand, we want to maintain open borders as much as feasibly possible, again for several reasons. First, international trade matters – a lot. Our collective economic well-being relies on the free and unfettered exchange of goods and services. Secondly, we in the West are shrinking when it comes to population. Our birth rates are below the 2.1 children per mother level needed to maintain our current levels and it is only through open borders – i.e. immigration – that we can resolve this. Thirdly, our nations (Canada and the U.S.) are by definition lands of immigrants, facilitated by open borders. Our richness comes from ‘over there.’

At the same time there is clearly a national security/public safety angle (the two terms are often conflated but are not the same). We only need to cast our attention back to 9/11: the 19 hijackers all came through the U.S. immigration system. Mistakes were made and some 3,000 people died. So not implementing screening and vetting, whether it is at the border itself or further abroad (at embassies and consulates) is a non-starter. We do have rational and legitimate reasons to do this.

There are, however, bad ways to do this.

Into that category I would put the recent Trump administration decision to ‘ban’ immigration from Nigeria, Eritrea, Myanmar, and Kyrgyzstan, and block Sudan and Tanzania from the diversity lottery. This is in addition to an earlier move to slam the door on those coming from Iran, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, North Korea, Venezuela, Iraq and Sudan, although the last two were eventually removed from the restrictions. These moves are not well thought out and should be reconsidered.

I repeat: It is not that every country has a right to choose whom it wants (and whom it does not want) to immigrate. The problem I have is with the way this is being done. Blanket bans are not the answer: targeted ones are. We can identify threats to our countries – from terrorists, fraudsters, criminals, etc. – on an individual basis with the resources we have. Is this system perfect? Of course not: the odd bad actor can get through. But the numbers are really, really small. Unless we want 100 percent safety, which is unattainable in any event, we can do this.

Besides, the threat from terrorism coming to our shores from abroad has been vastly over-exaggerated. Statistics clearly show that since 9/11 very few attacks are perpetrated by immigrants. The vast, vast majority, in Canada as well as the U.S., are planned by individuals born and raised (and radicalized) on our watch. And for those who interject that as some of the terrorists are second- or third- or fourth-generation Americans we should not have allowed their (great) grandparents to immigrate in the first place, we can take that line of argument back to Plymouth Rock!

The truth is that we collectively do a very good job at stopping undesirables from gaining access to our lands. There are multiple checks and balances in place to ensure we are as safe as we can be. As this recent piece in The New Yorker by Ben Taub put it, “Refugees are the most thoroughly vetted category of people entering the U.S. Candidates are screened by the C.I.A., the N.S.A., the F.B.I., the Department of Defense, and several other agencies before they arrive. They are interviewed by Homeland Security officers who have received training in identifying lies, along with intelligence briefings about the applicants’ country of origin. An office within the D.H.S. called the Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate carries out open-source and classified research on candidates from certain backgrounds. Biographical and biometric information is run through numerous databases and watch lists, including Interpol’s Foreign Terrorist Fighter Database, which is informed by the collective investigative capacity of fifty-two countries.”

Translation: it is hard to come here to do bad things. Really hard. Really, really hard. The men and women we have trained and deployed in our security intelligence, law enforcement and border patrol agencies do us proud.

I’d like to see a pushback on the increasingly isolationist position adopted by the current U.S. administration (there is no real equivalent – so far – in Canada). In the end the more we exchange the richer we are, in so many ways.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email HSTodayMag@gtscoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

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Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. (www.borealisthreatandrisk.com) and Programme Director for the Security, Economics and Technology (SET) hub at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute (PDI). He worked as a senior strategic analyst at CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) from 2001-2015, specializing in violent Islamist-inspired homegrown terrorism and radicalisation. From 1983 to 2001 he was employed as a senior multilingual analyst at Communications Security Establishment (CSE – Canada’s signals intelligence agency), specialising in the Middle East. He also served as senior special advisor in the National Security Directorate at Public Safety Canada from 2013, focusing on community outreach and training on radicalisation to violence, until his retirement from the civil service in May 2015, and as consultant for the Ontario Provincial Police’s Anti-Terrorism Section (PATS) from May to October 2015. He was the Director of Security and Intelligence at the SecDev Group from June 2018 to July 2019. Mr. Gurski has presented on violent Islamist-inspired and other forms of terrorism and radicalisation across Canada and around the world. He is the author of “The Threat from Within: Recognizing Al Qaeda-inspired Radicalization and Terrorism in the West” (Rowman and Littlefield 2015) “Western Foreign Fighters: the threat to homeland and international security” (Rowman and Littlefield 2017), The Lesser Jihads: taking the Islamist fight to the world (Rowman and Littlefield 2017), An end to the ‘war on terrorism ’ and When religion kills: how extremist justify violence through faith (Lynne Rienner 2019). He regularly blogs and podcasts (An Intelligent Look at Terrorism – available on his Web site), and tweets (@borealissaves) on terrorism. He is an associate fellow at the International Centre for Counter Terrorism (ICCT) in the Netherlands, a digital fellow at the Montreal Institute for Genocide Studies at Concordia University, a member of the board at the National Capital Branch of the CIC (Canadian International Council) and an affiliate of the Canadian network for research on Terrorism Security and Society (TSAS). Mr. Gurski is a regular commentator on terrorism and radicalisation for a wide variety of Canadian and international media. He writes at www.borealisthreatandrisk.com.

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