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Anxieties about terrorism influence the way Americans — and policymakers — view immigration.

On Oct. 22, 2018, President Donald Trump posted a tweet that a group of Central American migrants traveling toward the U.S. contained “unknown Middle Easterners.” Though Trump didn’t mention terrorism, he did, in the same tweet, describe the existence of the caravan as a national emergency.

The next day, Trump admitted to a group of reporters that his tweet about Middle Easterners infiltrating the caravan lacked any proof.

True or not, fear-invoking rhetoric about Middle Eastern imposters at the southern border of the U.S. has consequences for migrants from Latin America, said Amina Zarrugh, assistant professor of sociology in the AddRan College of Liberal Arts.

The professor researches the “convergence” of the specter of Islamic terrorism and negative attitudes about Latino migrants. Muslims and Latinos, Zarrugh said, share a similarity in being looked upon as “perpetual foreigners.”

Amina Zarrugh sitting in a chair in an office

Sociologist Amina Zarrugh studies the intersection of Islamophobia and negative sentiments about Latin American migrants. PHOTO BY JEFFREY MCWHORTER


Zarrugh and Luis Romero, a Mellon postdoctoral teaching fellow at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, published an academic paper, “Islamophobia and the making of Latinos/as into terrorist threats,” that garnered media attention from such publications as Pacific Standard and The Guardian.

In the 2017 research study, Zarrugh and Romero traced the historical other-izing of Muslims and Latinos. The attitudes, Zarrugh said, stretch back through centuries and across continents. The convergence, however, didn’t appear until the 1990s, when fears about Islamic terrorism started becoming more mainstream.

After Sept. 11, 2001, Islamophobia and anti-migrant sentiments turned into opposite sides of a single coin. “Migration is a terror issue. Terrorism a migration issue,” Zarrugh said. “That means there is a large group of people that can come under that umbrella as potential suspects.”

In the aftermath of 9/11, the conflation of the ideas muscled up, transforming government bureaucracies and making immigration policy a turbulent issue.

Zarrugh and Romero began their research inquiry by analyzing newspaper accounts and government reports published between 2001 and 2015. They searched for every instance in which terrorism was used as an explicit justification for increased border security.

Combing through newspapers as well as reports from government agencies and nonprofit think tanks, including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Migration Policy Institute, the researchers found a steady increase in the intermingling of terrorism prevention and border security.

One of the biggest surprises, Zarrugh said, was that politicians on both sides of the political divide were invoking fear, and their talk did not remain confined to paper. After 9/11, legal processes began reflecting the idea that immigration was a major national security issue. “This isn’t just happening at the level of discourse,” Zarrugh said. “It’s actually happening in how people are raising policy.”

In the early 2000s, the federal government increased budgets for border surveillance and boosted the number of immigration enforcers assigned to the region. On the judicial side, judges and court decisions relaxed laws, making deportation an easier process.

Most notably, Zarrugh said, was the 2002 transfer of federal immigration authority from the now-defunct U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to Homeland Security. The change meant that duties once performed by labor lawyers were assigned to security-minded enforcers, many with backgrounds in law enforcement.

The change in acronyms from INS to DHS had multiple levels of meaning, Zarrugh said. “You immigrate and then you naturalize. There’s a sense of continuity, where you’re migrating to a place and then you naturalize. You’re now a natural person who belongs here,” she said. “Whereas [with] homeland security: There is a homeland. It has boundaries. There’s no sense of movement in that term.”

The increased levels of immigration enforcement had an impact. Between 1997 and 2012, about 4.2 million people were deported from the U.S. to their home countries — double the total number of deportations before 1997.

But the facts don’t support the fears about migrants, said Alex Nowrasteh, a senior immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C. He compiled a database of every instance of a foreign-born terrorist caught plotting or carrying out terror on U.S. soil.

Of the 193 culprits Nowrasteh found between 1975 and 2017, only three entered the U.S. undocumented across the Mexican border. The threesome, all brothers, were arrested before an attempted attack at Fort Dix in New Jersey. The brothers arrived in the U.S. when they were children with their Macedonian parents.

Nowrasteh said terrorism should not be used as a justification for more forbidding immigration policies. “It’s just another argument that people use in favor of increasing border security, but it’s an argument that doesn’t have a lot of support.”

However, a 2013 study conducted by the Pew Research Center reported that 75 percent of Americans saw terror as a permanent part of the future. The next year, a third of Pew’s respondents were in favor of prioritizing increased border security.

U.S. immigration laws and policies are “something that can’t change with an election cycle,” Zarrugh said. “This is not a temporary or minor change in the infrastructure in the way that migration is managed in the United States. … And it’s one that may be intractable.”