February 5, 2018 | By Sara McElmurry

Immigrants are Partners in National Security – Reforms Should Reflect That

By Oscar Chacón and Sara McElmurry

During last week’s State of the Union address, President Trump painted a picture of every parent’s worst nightmare: The murder of two Long Island teens, Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens, at the hands of international gang members. Cameras panned to the victims’ families, dabbing tears with tissues. The moment was among the most emotive of the evening’s speech, and for good reason: Heartbreaking situations like this shouldn’t happen in the United States—or anywhere.

People of all political stripes can rally behind goals to improve national security and public safety. They understand we will be most effective in tackling violence from groups like M-13—a gang born in Los Angeles and exported to El Salvador via the short-sighted criminal and deportation policies of the early 1990s—when we collaborate with transnational partners. That’s why those most invested in this goal will recognize that the White House’s hardline immigration policies won’t get us there.

The foreign-born are among law enforcements’ strongest allies in advancing public safety—just ask the New York Police Department, which has used tips from immigrants and refugees to save lives on multiple occasions. Studies from institutions representing both the right and left of the political spectrum have affirmed that immigrants are less likely that their US-born peers to commit crimes and to be incarcerated.

Responsible immigration reforms can advance public safety and security by fostering strong partnerships between law enforcement and the communities they serve. But instead of bolstering these relationships, Trump quite literally wants to wall off immigrant communities.

Central among the provisions in Trump’s immigration framework is a $25 billion border wall, a symbolic—if highly offensive and environmentally disastrous—gesture that will do little to advance our national security goals. Terrorism on US soil is largely homegrown. Drug cartels and arms dealers won’t heed a wall, instead using other savvy systems to smuggle goods into the United States. If the White House wants to use immigration reform to advance national security, there are many more productive ways to build policy.

Focus scarce enforcement resources where they are needed most. National security is best served when our system can quickly and efficiently prosecute and remove criminals. Yet as of 2017, there were 533,000 immigration cases clogging deportation system, many of them unnecessarily: Low-risk individuals—army veterans and even US citizens—are getting caught up in the immigration dragnet. Even as it will take three years to work through the current backlog, the administration’s recent cancellations of DACA and TPS programs are poised to add a million new fully-vetted, work-authorized immigrants to the deportation list. We are most secure when we prioritize our scarce enforcement resources against true threats, not these immigrant workers and families.

Support regional security and prosperity. Americans are safest when our neighboring nations are safe. That principle, for decades, has guided our policies to offer refuge to people whose countries have been ravaged by war, poverty and natural disaster. But now, in cancelling TPS and other programs, our government intends to return the displaced to volatile and violent conditions in their home countries. The move will threaten an already tenuous regional stability, overwhelming regional governments and cutting off remittances, an important economic lifeline for many nations. Instead of pumping billions into inhumane and ineffective immigration enforcement and border control measures, we should support innovative approaches to advancing shared prosperity across borders. We advance everyone’s safety and well-being when we work in tandem with neighboring nations and their US-based diasporas.

Let immigrants put down permanent roots. Research from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Bipartisan Policy Center outlines other ways that sensible immigration policy updates can keep us all safe. Prominent among them is the creation of broader avenues to secure permanent residency for the immigrants who are already here. Permanency has security perks: It puts immigrants through comprehensive security screenings and gives them government-issued identification, which encourages cooperation with law enforcement. Bipartisan support for this idea already exists in the DREAM Act and the various legislative proposals that have been put forth in support of TPS holders. It’s time for Congress to roll up its sleeves and deliver legislation—and for the White House to do its part by supporting smart bipartisan compromises that advance security while supporting immigrant communities.

We need immigration reforms that recognize that immigrants are an important asset for the United States, partners in our national security and economic prosperity. Working across communities instead of dividing them, we can ensure that tragedies like what happened in Long Island never happen again.

Oscar Chacón is executive director of Alianza Americas, a transnational network of organizations serving Latino and Caribbean immigrants. Sara McElmurry is a nonresident fellow of immigration at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and co-author of “Balancing Priorities: Immigration, National Security, and Public Safety.” She is an advisor for Alianza Americas.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.


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