Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 6, 2015

Danger: It is clear. Is it present?

Filed under: Immigration,International HLS,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on August 6, 2015

Manu_Brabo_San Salvador Arrest

Above: Photograph by Manu Brabo (AP) of an arrest in San Salvador from the Executioners of El Salvador in The New Yorker.

Until the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the United States did not attempt to control immigration as a matter of policy. Other late 19th Century restrictions attempted to limit entry by Japanese, lunatics, anarchists, and carriers of infectious diseases.  From 1921 to 1965 various laws and Executive actions served to set an upper limit on total immigration and set quotas for the national origin of immigrants.

The Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965, the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, and the 1990 Immigration Act put in place the basic architecture of contemporary immigration policy. Since 9/11 there have been several attempts to significantly revise immigration laws, most of these efforts have failed.

Each year roughly 700,000 legal immigrants enter the United States.  Illegal immigration is tough to track, but net inflows — number entering minus number returning — are credibly estimated to have plunged below 100,000 since the Great Recession (2007).   According to the Pew Research Center, since 2012 it is possible that more Mexicans living in the United States have returned to Mexico than have crossed north.

If so, this would restore a long-time pattern of Mexican and Central American migration.  According to Madeline Zavodny with the American Enterprise Institute:

It is worth noting that historically many unauthorized immigrants did not settle permanently in the United States. Instead, they worked here temporarily, saved some money and returned home; many repeated this on a seasonal basis for years but ultimately retired at home, where their family members had remained. Since the 1980s, however, there has been a gradual shift toward unauthorized immigrants settling in the United States and reuniting with family members here. One reason for this was the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) legalization program, which enabled some 2.7 million unauthorized immigrants to receive permanent legal status. Another reason is the increased difficulty in crossing the U.S.-Mexico border due to tighter border security. As it has become harder to re-enter the United States, unauthorized immigrants have increased their length of stay here.

Increased economic opportunity in Mexico — strongly tied to a declining birth-rate — is one of several factors that have shifted migration patterns. “The immigration debate seems to be stuck around the year 2006, and before then,” says Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute.

Japan or New Zealand can conceivably manage their immigration policy with a border strategy.  Most large, affluent, culturally diverse nations (or regions, ala the European Union) will find a border strategy to be about as effective as the Maginot Line.  To be effective much more attention is required to shape the strategic context for migration… as distant from the border as possible.

For example, last week Refugees International released a new report on violence in El Salvador.  In the last six months, there have been over 3000 murders in this nation of 6 million.   According to the report:

More children are killed in El Salvador per capita than in any other country. Two gangs are largely responsible for this increasing violence. These gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (18th Street) originated in Los Angeles, but after 1996, thousands were deported to El Salvador in a process that has been described as “unintentional state-sponsored gang migration.” By 2005, El Salvador had 10,000 active gang members, and this number has only grown in the intervening years. Currently, there are 70,000 members of the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs operating in El Salvador…

Does this situation present a potential immigration challenge to the United States? Last summer we had a dramatic example of the possibility.  Since then the situation in Central America has only gotten worse. Does the strength of Central American gangs and their contacts with US and international criminal/terrorist organizations present a potential threat beyond immigration?  Is the US national interest our only concern in this context?  Should it be?

Where would you prefer to engage the potential threat?  How would you prefer to reduce the potential threat? When is the right time to engage?  The Refugees International Report offers some answers.

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Comment by Donald Quixote

August 6, 2015 @ 9:47 am

The unintended consequences of ignoring previous serious issues only to create later more significant cascading ones? It is a regional concern.

I am sure if we ignore the problems, they will correct themselves………

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 6, 2015 @ 10:06 am

Thanks Phil for post and links!

Not to worry corruption and collapse of the Chinese economy underway with Chinese oligarchs desperately trying to get their families and wealth out of China mainly to the USA.

After all for a mere $500k you can buy US citizenship.

And since 2010 Asian immigration far outnumbers brown or black Hispanic and PEW Foundation says this is as it always will. Welcome TRIADS?

Comment by Vicki Campbell

August 6, 2015 @ 1:18 pm

Phil, to my mind, you’re combining and confusing several issues here, and also using the term and indeed specter of “threats” way too indiscriminately at the end – which is a very big problem in HS, and well beyond. Another is the dramatic lack of any discussion of context, and the usually massive extent to which most “challenges” are actually the result of prior U.S. foreign (usually trade and development) policies – which in turn leaves most policy and analyses devoid of seriously applicable solutions. I was however glad that you brought up the issue of the undocumented becoming trapped in the U.S. as a result of increased “security”, as it presents a considerably more accurate picture of actual migration patterns over the last decade than anything currently being discussed generally.

Nonetheless, exactly who and what are you referring to as a meaningful “threat” when you write:

“Does the strength of Central American gangs and their contacts with US and international criminal/terrorist organizations present a potential threat beyond immigration” (I’m particularly interested in understanding what you mean by ‘beyond immigration’).
“Where would you prefer to engage the potential threat? How would you prefer to reduce the potential threat? When is the right time to engage?”

Again, what the heck is the actual “potential threat” that you’re referring to – and to whom. I’m being really serious here. What I see and hear being referenced are thousands upon thousands upon thousands (literally) of pretty desperate often terrified and certainly traumatized people – a shocking number of whom are children, for god’s sake – who have felt literally driven from the only place they’ve ever called home to a foreign land and culture full of strangers, and who find themselves trapped in the middle of a very serious human rights crisis literally at our border being very indifferently and superficially recast as, well, I’m not even sure what – and then glossed over completely, in order to get to some other kind of largely as yet imagined threat to us instead.

Neither you or I are the ones being threatened in any meaningful way by the scenarios that you’ve described above, Phil – and its time we started behaving far more appropriately as a nation in the face of them than we have been – especially if we want to have the slightest chance of offering up to the world a more “positive narrative” than we certainly have been able to – which is why we’ve been failing at it so miserably thus far. The massive criminal detention, usually in pretty deplorable conditions, of refugee women and children on our border has been and still is not only a significant violation of multiple and significant international human rights laws, but simply repugnant morally by absolutely any half-decent standard. It is just one example of how any kind of attempt at constructing a “positive narrative” will certainly stand in pretty stark contrast to our actual behavior as a nation in the real world both at home and almost anywhere abroad. Our history and current policies regarding our treatment of undocumented immigrants is just one example amongst so many where we simply have no positive story to tell – and unfortunately, with all due respect, your post reflects a lot of the mindset surrounding why that is.

A few weeks ago, right after the Charleston murders, I challenged you in a post about the white male nature of some of your responses (and I also felt afterwards that i didn’t give you your due about other aspects as well). In it I referenced the tendency to gloss over others’ experiences, and recast them in a manner that serves, however unconsciously, to universalize predominantly white male experience (and diminish if not erase other perspectives and experiences). Your response was quick, and to my mind, quite impressive, going well beyond these issues and into how men (and in our case and culture, white men) deal with issues of vulnerability, insecurity and feeling threatened. I really apologize for not responding then to again what I considered to be a very honest, insightful response on your part. I’ve just been ridiculously busy, and not taking on anything very serious, although i did slowly write a long response in my head. I’ve been waiting for a decent segue back into the conversation, because I honesty don’t think there is a more important set of issues both shaping and corrupting our thinking and behavior around security issues than race or class. I don’t know if this is that segue, but it feels like it might be.

Comment by Vicki Campbell

August 6, 2015 @ 1:47 pm

Correction: I meant to say “race and gender” not “race and class.” Class to my mind in implicit in both.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

August 6, 2015 @ 4:15 pm


Thanks for your note on today’s post and the late June post from Charleston (and our subsequent dialogue). I perceive some continuity in your take on my angle to each topic.

I was raised in a literary, religious, and aesthetic tradition that is predisposed toward paradox. For example, I entirely agree with the tension you have highlighted in my use of the word threat. That is one of the reasons I used the word.

In this tradition, a paradox is a kind of truth, but it is far from simple, often contrary to expectations, and combines observations and/or attributes in a way that almost everyone (including the author) finds confusing. Words are dense and packed with multiple meanings. Sentences multiply the possibilities. The principal purpose of this rhetorical tradition is to prompt questions… exactly as you have done.

But I suppose this kind of rhetoric has always been an acquired taste. I understand if you and others find it over-wrought, even sour.

This is nonetheless my most abiding worldview. So… especially when I am writing on my own time/dime, this is the rhetoric I am most inclined to deploy.

Recently a friend wrote that there is a considerable contemporary tendency to conflate certainty with clarity: Something is clear when we can be certain about it. For him (and me) it is much more common to be very clear about sources of uncertainty. Works for me in trying to reach some sort of clarity regarding homeland security.

I am not exactly apologizing. But I do want to acknowledge being eccentric.

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 6, 2015 @ 6:57 pm

N.B. During the Directorship of the FBI by J. Edgar Hoover both GANG [including organized crime] and drug enforcement was off limits.

Why? He believed both those areas of concern were capable of corrupting the FBI.

Comment by Vicki Campbell

August 6, 2015 @ 8:30 pm

Phil, in all honesty, “disassociated” would be the word I would’ve used, not “eccentric” – as there’s nothing particularly unusual about it, except perhaps the extremeness of it in your instance – which your inexplicably oblique, off-point response couldn’t have been a better example of. It doesn’t even seriously relate to your own post much less mine, which it couldn’t be less relevant to in any direction. I’m amongst many who find the kind of naval-gazing “tradition” that you’ve described as being, beyond mostly much ado about not much, primarily about normalizing and reinforcing the status quo, and as such, is a fundamental slap in the face to the many, many lives being so dramatically impacted by the multiple security issues you’ve raised, as well as simply the antithesis of good critical analysis of those issues- no matter whose dime its on. Also, amazingly enough, I don’t in fact need to have the term paradox, or the often multi-layered nature of words more generally, explained to me, nor do I share your seeming preoccupation with these revelations. Finally, under the category of not putting those oh-so-multi-layered words into my mouth, I don’t find it “over-wrought” or “sour,” so much as just a fairly tedious, irrelevant distraction from whatever topic or conversation is supposedly being teed up – and again, as a result, a fundamental a-front to the many very real human impacts of those issues, and the policies surrounding them. This often shocking disconnect and the comparative indifference and lack of empathy that flows from it is the real underlying “tradition” to my mind – and there’s nothing eccentric about it. It’s quite stereotypical actually.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

August 7, 2015 @ 4:16 am

Vicki: It is a tough diagnosis and certainly coincides with much of the evidence. I do very much like obliques. I’m likely to continue with them… and will anticipate your straightening.

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 7, 2015 @ 6:59 am

Vicki and Phil! Comments of interest and I have been labeled more than once MR. AMBIGUITY!

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 7, 2015 @ 7:37 am

A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.
— Confucius, Analects, Book XIII, Chapter 3, verses 4-7, translated by James Legge

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