Alex Radelich


How Counter-Terrorism Became a Culture War in the Age of Trump

Three and a half percent. That’s the percentage of people in America who are here “illegally” as pundits would phrase it.

We take in about 85,000 refugees a year and another 25,000 asylum seekers. Both numbers are so low, they represent no material impact to the broad demographics of a 330 million person nation. They are drops of water in a bucket.

We also have about 700,000 or so members of the Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, children who came here with their undocumented parents that meet specific criteria. The DREAM act, which Democrats have been trying to pass for 17 years, expands the criteria for inclusion to undocumented residents, mostly by expanding age criteria.

The reality is that the border is minimally porous. And population flows move, as they always have, with economic opportunity. The movement can and likely will ebb and flow with that trend in the future.

During our steepest increase in immigration rates in America, we saw crime rates take some of their steepest drops. While saying immigration makes us safer is silly, there’s no evidence at all on any measurable scale that immigration makes Americans materially less safe.

That’s about it for the movement of people in America. As for the people that are already here, well that story is much less dynamic.

The American birth rate is 1.84 births per woman. It would take 2.01 births per woman to maintain our population. This means Americans are shrinking. Shrinking starts out by looking like aging. We’re 38 on average. Fifty years ago, we were 29. Soon, we’ll have more people pulling from Social Security than putting into it. That happens faster if we curtail immigration as immigrants tend to be younger and have higher birth rates. Without immigration, our society will collapse.
If our intent were to secure us from crime, drugs and terrorists, the surveillance state started by the George W. Bush administration would be sufficient. It’s not though because that’s not what we’re really afraid of.
That’s the data, in 300 words or less—all found from official, academic or otherwise reputable sources by Googling, “how many illegal immigrants in America.” All that’s wrapped up in the “dire problem” or “crisis” of immigration is found somewhere in those numbers.

The immigration debate in America does cover quite a bit of territory, though. Mostly what is on the table is what to do with DACA, whether or not to include DREAMers, what to invest in border security, what considerations to make for asylum, and how to treat the 11 million people in America that are undocumented. Though simplified, but not by much, the party breaks along the lines of more border security, stricter paths to citizenship, less asylum and a net reduction of immigration being Republican goals while Democrats aim to loosen paths to citizenship, insist on humane treatment of and increased resources spent on undocumented residents or asylum seekers. There are reasonable positions to be taken on both sides of the debate. There are two principles I’ve landed on when forming my own perspectives on immigration in America. They are as follows: 1. Policy should not seek to conflate the movement of things with the movement of people. 

2. Intent matters.

With regards to the first principle, the most justified cause for investment in border security is to keep illegal drugs and weapons of mass destruction out of our country. The second most justified is to enforce trade policy. We have an ongoing drug epidemic. We have been engaged in a war with non-state actors for 20 years. We have an economy that relies on some control of import and export. We should be committed to ensuring we get the best outcomes related to those issues. But we should be clear and honest that they are not immigration issues. Drug enforcement is not immigration. Trade is not immigration. Movement of capital is not immigration. Counter-terrorism is not immigration. Immigration is immigration.

The movement of people into or out of our country is immigration. Pursuing unimaginative approaches like zero tolerance to immigration in order to attain best outcomes for those other issues is a feat of poor leadership. Additionally, using citizenship, entry and asylum as a bargaining chip to control the “things” we want coming in and out of our country violates that first principle and leads to the poor and politicized outcomes we’ve realized in our near history.

The reason we are guilty of violating the second principle is we’re not honest in our intent. If we were honest in our intent, we would understand that the page of data I just showed above characterizes a nation that is not in danger of suffering resource constraints, employment scarcity or other poor socio-economic outcomes. If our intent were to secure us from crime, drugs and terrorists, the police and surveillance state started by the George W. Bush administration and then continued under the Obama administration would be sufficient. It’s not though because that’s not what we’re really afraid of. So, solving it is not our intent.

In reality we’re afraid of losing our national identity. And for some not insignificant portion of America, that identity is ethnocentric. And that’s really the issue.

There’s nothing wrong with a country defending its culture. Things like liberty, equality, opportunity, religious tolerance, free markets and Steely Dan are all worth fighting for. That’s the best of American culture. But when that culture insists on some order of ethnicity, we wander into dangerous territory. Historically, that’s been the worst of our American culture.

This is where I abruptly break from contemporary conservative views.

Though there is staunch denial within reasonable conservative circles that the goal of our current conservative immigration platforms are motivated by ethnocentric nationalism, one struggles to draw any other conclusion from the campaign rhetoric and policies of the current administration. When one campaigns on immigration from the conservative post with great passion, one knows exactly who their base is likely to be. We shouldn’t be surprised when inhumane treatment and coercive movement of those that pose no immediate threat to anyone follow shortly after.

We forever should be alarmist when people whose sole crime is being an unwanted presence are treated with certain cruelness. It is and always has been, the gateway to the worst of who we are.

A graduate of the United States Naval Academy and the University of San Diego Graduate School of Business, Sean Patrick Hughes left the Navy, after 10 years of active duty, at the rank of Commander. He lives in Southern California with his wife Annette and three boys. Hughes’ new book, Sixteen, is now available on Amazon and other fine booksellers.