After last week’s attacks in Belgium, for which ISIS has claimed responsibility, conservatives turned to hate speech toward Muslims in their reactions. Ted Cruz named “radical Islamic terrorism” as “our enemy,” while Donald Trump vowed to ban Muslims from entering the United States. Such responses are unproductive and pointless. Demonizing Muslims only accomplishes the promotion of racism, hatred, and Islamophobia in the United States. Meanwhile, such statements further inflame anti-American sentiment abroad.
While it is important to denounce these reactions right off the bat, it is also useful to examine how they work. In understanding what motivates anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric, perhaps we can find ways to dismantle it. What interests me about Donald Trump’s reaction in particular is the conflation of terrorism, Islam, and immigration as one threat to the United States. After the Belgium attacks, Donald Trump used the frenzy to demand both a ban on all Muslims entering the United States and a closing of the U.S.-Mexico border. In this way, he combined the perceived threat of people entering the U.S. illegally from Mexico with the perceived threat of Islamic terrorism. This perception of terrorists and immigrants as the same threat comes in spite of the fact that the Belgium attackers were found to be Belgian citizens. Indeed, most of the terror attacks in Europe have been carried out by Europeans, not foreigners. In fact, even the 9/11 attacks were carried out not my illegal immigrants, but by legal U.S. residents.
Nonetheless, terrorism and immigration have long been linked in U.S. public discourse. How has this happened? And how should we respond?
“Illegal” immigrants from Mexico and Latin America have long been characterized by conservatives as a threat to the nation. But after 9/11, the concept of illegality was also connected to the perceived Arab/Muslim terrorist threat, as scholar Lisa Marie Cacho explains in her book Social Death. Images of the undocumented immigrant threat and the Muslim terrorist threat have mutually reinforced one another as two versions of “illegality” that endanger national security. Notably, both of these threats are racially coded. Although actual skin color may not be referenced in anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric, images of these Latin@ or Muslim “others” are still coded non-white. It is a sad testimony to the enduring white supremacy in the United States that foreign immigrants are not only portrayed as a threat to our nation, but are also still characterized as non-white racial others. By rhetorically connecting illegal immigration to terrorism, illegal immigration is now understood not only as a racial or cultural threat to national identity, but also as an actual security threat. Even though there has never been any evidence of Middle Eastern terrorists entering the United States from the southern border, politicians use the fear of terrorism to hype up anti-immigrant feelings, and vice versa. Sadly, these two reactionary fears mutually reinforce each others.
This conflation of fears doesn’t just happen at the rhetorical level, the level of political speeches and news shows, unfortunately. In 2004 and 2005, two federal laws regulating government IDs actually combined these fears in the legislation itself, using purportedly anti-terrorist legislation to further disenfranchise undocumented immigrants. The 9/11 Act of 2004 explicitly connects immigration policy with terrorism, stating, “The routine operations of our immigration laws and the aspects of those laws not specifically aimed at protecting against terrorism inevitably shaped Al Qaeda’s planning and opportunities”–despite the lack of any actual proof of a such a connection between immigration law and terrorism. Yet the law states that “travel documents are as important to terrorists as weapons since terrorists must travel clandestinely.” This statement justifies the strengthening of security requirements for identification documents, laid out by this law and the subsequent REAL ID Act of 2005. The REAL ID Act requires that applicants for state IDs provide “evidence of lawful status” in the U.S., proving citizenship, permanent residency, or appropriate visa or deferred action status. The law also imposes stricter immigration standards for asylum seekers. So, what these laws do is use the fear of terrorists using government documents for travel to prevent undocumented immigrants from gaining government-issued IDs, which would enable them to legally drive and otherwise carry out their day-to-day lives.
In this way, these laws use counter-terrorism to justify stricter ID requirements for all unauthorized immigrants. The implication is that any unauthorized immigrant may be a terrorist. Ironically, as in the recent Belgium attacks, carried out by Belgians, not undocumented immigrants, the 9/11 attacks were not carried out by unauthorized immigrants but legal U.S. residents. So, imposing further restrictions on undocumented immigrants, by sealing the U.S.-Mexico border, for instance, is not an effective counter-terrorism measure. The rhetorical and legislative slippage between illegal immigration and terrorism is more an expression of Americans’ fear of racial others invading the nation, than a reasonable fear derived from the actual origins of the terrorist threat. Nevertheless, this slippage allows anti-terrorism efforts to justify further restrictions for all unauthorized immigrants.
Instead of allowing conservatives to fan the flames of racism by fear-mongering that encourages xenophobia and prejudice, we need to stand up for what is truly right. We should welcome migrants who come as political or economic refugees from other countries, whether from Syria or Central America. We should make an effort to reach out to Muslims in the United States and abroad, rather than attacking them. Reacting to terrorist acts with racism and prejudice, denouncing all Muslims and misrepresenting immigrants as the cause, only encourages extremists to represent the United States as racist and wrong. Hate begets more hate, on both sides. While we should absolutely denounce terrorist acts and senseless murder, we should also try to understand the economic, political, and social conditions that are driving extremism in the Middle East. We should not denounce all Muslims as the cause of such extremism, nor should we use terrorism as an excuse to further oppress immigrants. Only with understanding and respect can we really overcome the threat of extremism. Let us not become hate-filled extremists ourselves. Rather, let us embrace our common humanity and stand up to the world’s real evils, which are poverty, hatred, and prejudice.