Let's not confuse the real threats.

By Elizabeth Neumann

March 4, 2020

Words matter. Especially when it comes to specifying national security threats.

In October 2020, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released its inaugural Homeland Threat Assessment (Assessment), a comprehensive document that identifies the major security threats facing the United States.

The Assessment listed “illegal immigration” as one of seven major threats facing the U.S., placing it alongside cyber-attacks by foreign adversaries, foreign and domestic terrorists, and transnational criminal organizations. By listing illegal immigration as a threat, DHS asserted that illegal immigration has the “potential to harm life, information operations, the environment, and/or property.”

But DHS fails to provide facts to back up this assertion. In fact, the entire narrative for that section of the Assessment evaluates trends and factors that may affect migration flows. In other words, while the Assessment is useful in explaining why the Coast Guard and Border Patrol could encounter increased migration flows on U.S. waters or along the border, it fails to make the case that migration will lead to harm.

Notably, in the same Assessment, DHS acknowledged that migrants themselves pose little danger, stating that “although the majority of migrants do not pose a national security or public safety threat, pathways used by migrants to travel to the United States have been exploited by threat actors.” According to its own lexicon, the DHS Assessment is describing a vulnerability, not a threat. Vulnerabilities certainly should be considered as part of a risk calculation, along with threats and consequences, but vulnerabilities are not threats.

Why does this matter? Calling “illegal immigration” a threat implies to the reader that an undocumented immigrant poses security concerns on par with North Korea, ISIS, or the Sinaloa Cartel.

This kind of misguided, fear-based language about immigrants and immigration does not strengthen our national security; it could even play into the hands of actors who pose actual threats to the United States. That’s why I’m joining a coalition of national security leaders to launch the Council on National Security and Immigration. We believe that immigration policies rooted in misinformation, grievance and fear are detrimental to our national security and that just, lasting immigration reforms are, in fact, necessary to address security vulnerabilities.

National security professionals agree that border security is a critical part of keeping Americans safe. There is also bipartisan agreement that the current set of laws that make up our immigration system are broken and outdated. This failing system creates vulnerabilities that could be exploited by individuals with criminal or terrorist intent that a border wall and more enforcement agents cannot resolve. However, employing alarmist tactics to intentionally conflate the vulnerabilities in our immigration system with security threats is misleading and ineffective.

DHS is now making strides to distinguish immigrants from existential threats. It has recently issued guidance that their communications will no longer use the word “alien” in describing an undocumented person. Choosing words that offer dignity to a fellow human being is a small but important step in recovering civility in our discourse. Promoting a healthy debate also requires correcting the record so that debates are framed around facts. DHS should consider fixing the Homeland Threat Assessment by removing “illegal immigration” from a threat category.

But we must also couple our words with actions. That means Congress must finally pursue bipartisan immigration reforms that advance our national interests. This legislation must resolve border security vulnerabilities, support vetting and screening of noncitizens entering the United States, expand legal pathways for immigration, and ensure we respect the human dignity of vulnerable migrants while upholding the rule of law.

Legislation must also address the tenuous situation of undocumented immigrants, many of whom came to America as children, have immediate family members who are U.S. citizens, and have contributed to the country for years. Most undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. are not threats to national security and would welcome the opportunity to come forward, identify themselves, and make restitution if they were able to do so without fear of deportation.

Our current immigration system creates security vulnerabilities and pull factors for irregular migration. Each year that passes without immigration reforms increases our security risk. Lawmakers from both parties must reject polarized, all-or-nothing arguments that demonize both immigrants and their own political opponents.

Again, words matter: Leaders should engage instead in a robust and respectful debate based on facts and a transparent acknowledgement of the security vulnerabilities the current system poses. Bipartisan reforms can be done in a way that upholds the rule of law, is consistent with our national security and economic interests, treats everyone with dignity, and values immigrants’ contributions to the success of our nation.