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Does Restrictive Immigration Policy Reduce Terrorism in Western Democracies?

A recent Pew Research Center survey of ten countries in the European Union indicates that a median of 59 percent of the population consider refugee inflows to be a terrorism risk factor in their country. Responding to this growing concern, many European politicians have called for increasingly restrictive immigration policies to counter emerging terrorist challenges. For example, Marine Le Pen, a French far-right politician, suggested that the 2017 London terrorist attack “underlined the importance of countries being able to protect their borders and stepping up general security measures.” Believing immigrants to be a danger to national security, some American leaders have also employed a right-wing populist agenda. For example, on January 27, 2017, President Donald Trump issued an executive order, temporarily blocking entry by citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. The president asserted that “it is the policy of the United States to protect its citizens from foreign nationals who intend to commit terrorist attacks in the United States; and to prevent the admission of foreign nationals who intend to exploit United States immigration laws for malevolent purposes.”

Does such a restrictive immigration policy actually reduce the risk of future terrorist attacks? This study addresses this question empirically. While existing studies do not use a quantitative approach, they provide qualitative insights on the potential connection between immigration policy and terrorism. For example, Nowrasteh’s terrorism risk analysis of individual visa categories finds that a moratorium on all immigration or tourism is not warranted given that foreign-born terrorist suspects who enter the United States, either as immigrants or tourists, do not necessarily become high security risks. Yet, Krikorian’s study advocates an introduction of sustained, across-the-board immigration law enforcement as a way to keep out potential terrorists from American soil. Although these studies have contributed to immigration policy debates in both a constructive and positive way, they are limited in two ways: (1) their scope is limited to largely a single immigration policy restriction, and (2) their method is limited as it uses predominately qualitative approach of inquiry. This study attempts to provide a remedy for these two limitations, given the fact that states are likely to use multiple policy tools to regulate the inflow of immigrants for terrorism prevention and a quantitative inquiry is another instrumental venue to make systematic comparisons of different immigration policies across countries and over years.

Drawing on recently compiled data collected by Peters and Shin, who assess the content of immigration laws and immigrant rights in twelve policy areas in Western, industrialized, and democratic states, this study performs a cross-national, time-series data analysis during the period 1970 to 2007. This study puts forward evidence that the effects of restrictive immigration policies are mixed. In other words, the risk of terrorism is likely to diminish when states impose reduced immigration based on skill or wealth, or when immigrants are given very limited legal rights (e.g., designated employers and restricted residence). Conversely, the risk of terrorism is likely to increase when states offer no special visas or procedures to recruit laborers or settlers, or when immigrants are given citizenship only through being born to a native father or mother.

Read the full report by Seung-Whan Choi, professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Chicago

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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