The arrest of Pakistani-born U.S. citizen Faisal Shahzad for the failed car-bomb attack in Times Square has led to a flurry of suggestions that the U.S. government is allowing too many people to become U.S. citizens and too quickly.
But do these allegations make sense? Would we be safer if we drastically reduced the number of immigrants granted U.S. citizenship every year?
According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the number of people who become naturalized U.S. citizens has gone up from 120,000 a year in the 1960s to 210,000 a year in the 1980s to 500,000 a year in the 1990s to 743,715 last year. The increase in U.S. permanent residency papers -- or green cards -- issued is similar, the figures show.
Following the news of Shahzad's arrest, cable television anchors flashed the figures of the rising U.S. foreign-born population on the screen -- from 14 million in 1920 to 38 million today -- and wondered whether Washington has not become too generous when it comes to granting citizenship.
In the blogosphere, a headline by AOL News Washington correspondent Andrea Stone asked: "Was route to citizenship too easy for Shahzad?" Conservative anti-immigration crusader Michelle Malkin said in her own blog that "jihadists have knowingly and deliberately exploited our lax immigration and entrance policies."
But at a time when the country is grappling with Arizona's xenophobic anti-immigration law, there are several reasons why we shouldn't jump to the conclusion that reducing immigration would protect us from terrorism.
First, there are many U.S.-born terrorists. Just remember the 1995 bombing of an Oklahoma City federal building by Timothy McVeigh, which left 168 dead and injured more than 500 or "Unabomber" Theodore John Kaczynski, who carried out a campaign of deadly mail bombings in the '80s and '90s.
Even among Islamic terrorists or Jihad sympathizers, many are native born Americans.
You may remember Jose Padilla, the New York-born young man who was found guilty of supporting terrorism, or the "Lackawanna Six" Yemeni-Americans from Buffalo, N.Y., who were arrested in 2002 and later pleaded guilty to having ties to al Qaida. Or most of the seven Miami Liberty City men charged with plotting terrorist acts with al Qaida, or "Jihad Jane," the blue-eyed, blonde woman from Pennsylvania who was indicted recently on charges of trying to recruit jihad fighters over the Internet.
"There is a broad spectrum of individuals who radicalize for different reasons: native born Americans, naturalized Americans, and immigrants," says Robert Cressey, a former White House counter-terrorism advisor in the Clinton and Bush administrations. "It doesn't make sense to focus on any single one of those groups."
Furthermore, claims that immigration drives up crime rates are often wrong. Contrary to backers of Arizona's immigration laws claim that they had to do something to stop crime by illegal immigrants, Arizona has become safer since undocumented immigrants began pouring into the state in the 1990s, the Los Angeles Times reported Sunday.
Shahzad's case undermines the arguments of those who are using national security as an excuse for cracking down on undocumented immigrants in Arizona.
"What if Faisal Shahzad, the alleged Times Square car bomber, had turned out to be an illegal immigrant from Mexico?" asked blogger Robert Sheer in Truthdig.com. "The reality is that the terrorists who have attacked us, every one of the 9/11 hijackers included, all had their papers in order."
Frank Sharry, head of the pro-immigration reform America's Voice group, told me that "opponents of immigration are always trying to make the connection between immigration and terrorism, drugs or criminal activities in an attempt to demonize all immigrants. It doesn't work, because the American people know better."
My opinion: I agree. Granted, it's imperative the U.S. authorities do a good job screening people trying to enter this country. But we should keep in mind that the 24 U.S. terrorist incidents that occurred between 2002 and 2005 were carried out by domestic extremists, and that many of those were U.S.-born Americans, according to FBI data cited in a recent Council of Foreign Relations backgrounder.
The solution does not lie in restricting immigration, but in improving intelligence, so that we can identify people who are potential national security threats.
From what we know, they can be native-born Americans, naturalized Americans or immigrants.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.