What began as a war on terrorists has become a war on immigrants. The Department of Homeland Security says that it prioritizes its immigration enforcement actions by "targeting the greatest national security and public safety threats"—an approach not taken prior to 9/11.

At home, like abroad, the war on terrorism has lost its focus. Faced with failure, the Bush administration’s stated resolve to dismantle international terrorism has devolved into an attack on a far more vulnerable and proximate target—Latin American immigrants.

President George W. Bush has asked for a 6.8% increase in Homeland Security’s 2009 budget, while the department’s immigration enforcement operations will receive a 19.1% increase. Since the incorporation of immigration enforcement into the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2003, the two DHS immigration agencies—Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have received a greatly disproportionate share of Homeland Security’s annual budget increases.

In the president’s 2009 budget proposal, DHS says its main priority is "to prevent terrorist attacks against the nation and to protect our nation from dangerous people." DHS "will continue to prevent the entry of terrorists while facilitating the legitimate flow of people by strengthening border security efforts and continuing to gain effective control of America’s borders."

Department Secretary Michael Chertoff can point to many numerical indicators of progress. Border Patrol agents and detention beds have doubled; arrests by ICE fugitive operation teams doubled in 2007; and the "removal" of "criminal aliens" increases each year.

DHS spends more than $12 billion annually for operations "to protect our nation against dangerous people." Partnering in immigration enforcement, the Justice Department has also enjoyed hundreds of millions of dollars in budget increases over the past few years. Large increases for the DOJ’s role in immigration enforcement are included in its 2009 request for "National Security Efforts," specifically under its budget requests for "Fighting Criminal Activity on the U.S. Southwest Border."

A large sector of the U.S. population—12-13 million—that, prior to the creation of Homeland Security in March 2003, were described by DHS and DOJ as "illegal aliens" are now commonly labeled "dangerous people" because they lack proper documentation and may be falsifying their documents to obtain work, go to school, or pay taxes.

Homeland Security has launched waves of new anti-immigrant initiatives, many with militaristic names: Operation Streamline, Operation Jumpstart, Community Shield, Fugitive Operations, Return to Sender, Border Security Initiative, among others.

Why all the anti-immigrant fervor in government? What are the politics behind this offensive?

Restrictionists Set the Pace

The rising influence of the immigration restrictionists—including Minuteman vigilantes on the border, the Immigration Reform Caucus in Congress, and such policy institutes in Washington as Numbers USA, Center for Immigration Studies, and Federation for American Immigration Reform—has moved the immigration debate decidedly to the right and they have succeeded in framing immigration as a "rule of law" issue.

In the debate on comprehensive immigration reform, the forces that have traditionally shaped immigration politics—the "immigrants are good for profits" leaders of the Republican Party and the "immigrants are part of our electoral coalition" leaders of the Democratic Party—were overpowered and out-maneuvered by the restrictionist leaders and their deep reservoir of grassroots activists.

Those concerned about the rights of immigrants and the ethical obligations of a host country were pushed to the margins of the debate by restrictionists. These hardliners insisted that there could be no discussion of legalization or temporary work programs until the government secured its borders, enforced its immigration laws, and re-established the "rule of law" in the country.

With all proposals for comprehensive immigration reform blocked by the restrictionist grassroots lobby and their Washington representatives, leading elements of both parties accepted the "enforcement-first" agenda of the restrictionists.

Congress has approved billions of new dollars for immigration enforcement to double the number of Border Patrol agents, double the number of beds in detention centers, construct a 670-mile border fence, mount a high-tech virtual fence, and hire brigades of immigration attorneys, judges, and U.S. marshals at the Justice Department.

Many in Congress, especially liberal Democrats, hoped that by authorizing a full-throttle enforcement agenda they would be creating more political space for a comprehensive immigration reform that includes legalization. But comprehensive reform was quashed in the Senate along with other bills that opponents deemed to be pro-immigrant. By caving to the enforcement agenda, they actually lost political space as the immigrants-as-criminals, or worse, terrorists, image took even deeper hold in the media and national consciousness fueled by a barrage of images of fences, armed border guards, etc.

But the restrictionist camp did not declare victory. Instead, anti-immigration organizations quickly moved a step beyond the enforcement-first agenda and began brandishing an enforcement-only immigration policy. The restrictionist policy institutes call this their "attrition through enforcement" plan.

In effect, the departments of Homeland Security, Justice, and Defense have adopted an enforcement-only approach. With no legalization proposal on the horizon, the government has stepped up the pace of immigration enforcement, increasing workplace raids, opening new immigrant detention centers, and encouraging local governments to join in the national immigrant hunt—spreading terror throughout immigrant communities.

There is no plan to deport all illegal immigrants. Rather the crackdown aims to sow fear among immigrants so that large numbers decide to leave the United States and to deter others from migrating north. While the Bush administration publicly supports immigration reform, it has done little to advance a reform policy during its two terms.

A month after immigration reform failed in the Senate in June 2007 the administration announced a 26-point plan of administrative measures to increase immigration enforcement, such as extending the border fence and hiring more Border Agents. The plan also included measures to streamline the temporary worker program, an apparent attempt to assuage businesses that were complaining about congressional failure to expand the HB2 program. The Bush administration has unsuccessfully promoted the corporate proposal to expand temporary work programs, providing cheap labor without acquiring broader obligations to workers.

There is widespread speculation that the administration has unleashed DHS on immigrants with the hope that the resulting shortages of immigrant workers will create more political room for a renewal and expansion of temporary worker programs.

The administration recently adjusted the HB2 visa program to allow temporary workers to stay three years rather than ten months. This underscored the criticism that on the one hand the administration is detaining and deporting historic numbers of immigrants, while on the other hand it is opening the doors for business to employ foreign workers temporarily in resort hotels, shipyards, and golf courses.

All involved parties—the restrictionists, both political parties, the president, and the federal agencies charged with carrying out the immigration crackdown—bear some responsibility for the immigration crisis that is deepening in America. But the lion’s share of the blame lies with President Bush. His leadership gap allowed restrictionist proposals to gain momentum, he has spent billions of dollars on trumped-up border security, and he has unleashed DHS to pursue a war of terror on immigrants.

The politics of immigration restrictionism do not fully explain the war on immigrants. Anti-immigration and anti-immigrant forces would not have advanced so quickly without Sept. 11. The new national commitment to homeland security set the stage for an enforcement-only immigration policy and serves as the ideological framework for the immigration crackdown.

Immigrants as Criminals and Terrorists

At Homeland Security, which was established in reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks, there is no confusion about what is the driving force behind the immigration crackdown. As DHS explains, "The National Strategy for Homeland Security and the Homeland Security Act of 2002 served to mobilize and organize our nation to secure the homeland from terrorist attacks." Its mission is to "lead the unified national effort to secure America. We will prevent and deter terrorist attacks and protect against and respond to threats and hazards to the nation."

ICE explains that its predecessor, the Immigration & Naturalization Service (INS), was folded into the new Homeland Security department to allow it "to more effectively enforce our immigration and customs laws and to protect the United States against terrorist attacks." ICE says it does this "by targeting illegal immigrants: the people, money, and materials that support terrorism and other criminal activities. ICE is a key component of the DHS ‘layered defense’ approach to protecting the nation."

Similarly, CBP, whose main component is the Border Patrol, boasts of its national security mission: "We are the guardian of our Nation’s borders. We are America’s frontline. We safeguard the American homeland at and beyond our borders. We protect the American public against terrorists and the instruments of terror." There is no mention of immigrants in CBP’s mission, even though obstructing illegal immigration is its most prominent function.

DHS points to statistics that testify to its progress in arresting, detaining, and deporting immigrants. The Justice Department, responsible for prosecuting immigrants and transporting them to jails, points to the mushrooming of immigration cases as evidence of its commitment to upholding immigration law.

But what does all this immigration enforcement have to do with protecting the country against terrorists and criminals that threaten our security and safety?

A 2007 study by the Transnational Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University found that there has been no increase in terrorism or national security charges against immigrants since 2001. In fact, despite the increased enforcement operations by Homeland Security, more immigrants were charged annually in immigration courts with national security or terrorism-related offenses in a three-year period in the mid-1990s (1994-96) than in a comparable period (2004-06) since Sept. 11.

According to the TRAC study, "A decade later, national security charges were brought against 114 individuals, down about a third. Meanwhile for the same period, terrorism charges are down more than three-fourths, to just 12."

"Despite repeated claims by high officials of the Bush administration that fighting terrorism has been the central mission of the Department of Homeland Security," reported TRAC, "the data show that in the last three years a claim of terrorism was made against only 12 (0.0015%) out of individuals against whom the DHS has filed charges in the immigration courts." Of those 12 charges, "six were withdrawn by the DHS, one was not sustained, two are still pending, one was otherwise dealt with, and only four were sustained."

Although ICE claims it targets immigrants accused of crimes that threaten national security and public safety, in practice the agency has made undocumented immigration itself a crime thus blurring the lines between immigration violations and serious crime. Immigrants are now being charged with federal crimes for actions that were in the past considered administrative violations. The criminals that DHS, ICE, and Border Patrol are arresting and imprisoning are increasingly immigrants who have falsified documents or Social Security numbers to obtain and hold jobs—often with the tacit cooperation of employers.

ICE has mounted a national dragnet with 75 teams stationed around the country looking for "fugitive immigrants." ICE says its new operation is intended "to dramatically expand the agency’s efforts to locate, arrest, and remove fugitives from the United States." But most of these fugitives are not criminals on the lam but rather immigrants who have failed to respond to administrative orders issued by immigration courts.

New Administration Needs to Delink Security and Immigration

By merging Homeland Security and Border Patrol into one department, the Bush administration has created a monster agency that has betrayed its original mandate on terrorism, diverting a tremendous amount of resources to hunting down and "removing" immigrants who represent no threat to national security.

Some immigrants might be terrorists, just as some citizens might be terrorists. However, by having such a large population to monitor—as many as 30 million non-citizen (legal and illegal) immigrants in addition to foreign visitors—DHS is unable to focus on homeland security. Instead it has clumsily taken on the administration of a badly flawed immigration system.

Incorporating immigration agencies into Homeland Security has further complicated and distorted what was already a dysfunctional immigration system. The administrative merging has created a merging in the public mind between "threats" of terrorists and immigrants. ICE and Border Patrol agents now regard immigrants lacking proper documents as criminals and potential terrorists, and they are encouraging local law-enforcement officials to do the same.

Immigration policy and homeland security have become so entangled that for DHS and its component immigration agencies the mission of protecting America has become synonymous with cracking down on immigrants. It’s one more policy mess from the Bush legacy that the next administration will need to untangle.

The politics of restrictionism can be defeated. More difficult, though, for a new Congress and president will be a rolling back of the Homeland Security apparatus that has taken over immigration policy. A real focus on terrorism and organized crime could make those programs more professional and more effective. But the unfocused and punitive enforcement-only measures on the border need to be defunded and shut down.

Immigrants aren’t the enemy next door. They are our employees, coworkers, and neighbors.

The challenge for the next president and a new Congress will be to articulate an immigration policy that is independent of the national security imperative. No doubt that the immigration system is in crisis, but it’s a failure to set sustainable immigration flows and fair practices—certainly not a national security crisis.