According to a new poll released earlier this week by the Pew Research Center, roughly three-quarters of Americans (76%) think defending the country against terrorism should be Donald Trump’s top priority as President.
Of course, Trump made terrorism a central issue in his campaign, and this may well be part of the reason he was elected in November. During the campaign, Trump talked tough about immigration and famously called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
And now that he’s taken office, Trump has quickly moved forward with his plan to try to prevent terrorists from entering the country by drastically cracking down on immigration – both legal and otherwise.
Specifically, Trump signed a number of executive orders in his first week that will, among other things, help the federal government find and deport undocumented immigrants, suspend entry of all refugees to the United States for 120 days, bar all Syrian refugees indefinitely, and ban citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the US for 90 days. Countries affected by the ban include Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia. Trump plans to reinstate immigration from these countries after 90 days, but at a severely restricted rate and with priority given to Christians over Muslims.
Trump has also asked the Secretary of Homeland Security to publish a weekly list of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants – and of the cities that declined to turn them over for deportation – for the purported purpose of better informing the public about the “safety threats associated with sanctuary jurisdictions.”
Not surprisingly, the President’s sweeping actions this past week against immigrants and refugees have drawn heavy criticism from Democrats and human rights organizations, including the ACLU and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Spontaneous protests have also broken out at airports nationwide, where travelers arriving from countries included in the immigration ban have already been detained by authorities.
Yet, amid all the controversy, there’s an obvious question that should be asked. And that’s whether President Trump’s executive orders on immigration will actually do anything at all to help protect America against a future terrorist attack. If so, then might the ends justify the means to some degree? Or is the President, in his singular focus on immigration, missing the larger picture on terrorism and misguided in his belief about who the terrorists actually are? If so, then he is misdirecting his efforts and resources by targeting mostly innocent people. People who, by and large, hold no ill will against the United States and who are simply looking to come to our country either to start a better life for themselves or to escape war-torn regions of the world.
Trump’s Executive Orders Will (Probably) Not Make America Safer
Given the flurry of executive orders this week and his rhetoric on the campaign trail, it seems pretty clear that President Trump believes foreign extremists are the likeliest ones to launch a terrorist attack against the US. It also seem pretty clear that, in adopting this perspective, the President believes strong borders are the primary solution to terrorism. After all, if terrorists can’t get into our country, then they can’t hurt us, right?
Yet, it’s far from certain whether a restriction on immigration will help further protect Americans. That’s because existing data do not support Mr. Trump’s apparent belief about who terrorists are and where they originate.
For one thing, immigrants are actually less likely to commit crimes than people born in the US.
Consider, for example, the findings from a 2015 report issued by the American Immigration Council, a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to protecting the rights and privileges of immigrants in the United States. According to their analysis of data from the American Community Survey (ACS), immigrants are less likely to be incarcerated than people who were born in the United States. From 1980-2010, the incarceration rate was anywhere from two to five times higher for US-born citizens compared to foreign-born immigrants. Furthermore in 2010, the incarceration rate for US-born men without a high school diploma was roughly triple that of less educated foreign-born men from Mexico; and it was five times greater than that of less educated foreign-born men from either Guatemala or El Salvador.
Immigrants and others traveling to the US from abroad are also no more likely than US-born citizens to engage in terrorist activities. In fact, they may be less likely to do so.
According to data from the non-partisan think-tank New America, most terrorist activities in the US since 9/11 have actually been carried out by US citizens, not refugees or other foreigners.
The relevant results from New America’s comprehensive report, “Terrorism in America After 9/11”, are shown below:*
Since 9/11, New America estimates there have been 397 cases involving individuals who were charged with or died while engaging in jihadist terrorist activities inside the US. This includes American citizens accused of such activity while abroad. And out of these 397 cases, 82% involved accused terrorists who were legal citizens and permanent residents of the US.
These findings are further discussed in the New America report, as follows:
In the post-9/11 era, conventional wisdom holds that the jihadist threat is foreign. The conventional wisdom is understandable; after all it was 19 Arab hijackers who infiltrated the United States and conducted the 9/11 attacks. Yet today, as Anwar al-Awlaki, the American born cleric who became a leader in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, put it in a 2010 post, “Jihad is becoming as American as apple pie.” Far from being foreign infiltrators, the large majority of jihadist terrorists in the United States have been American citizens or legal residents. Moreover, while a range of citizenship statuses are represented, every jihadist who conducted a lethal attack inside the United States since 9/11 was a citizen or legal resident. In addition about a quarter of the extremists are converts, further confirming that the challenge cannot be reduced to one of immigration [emphasis added].
Now of course, jihadist terrorist organizations, such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS, pose a very real and very serious danger to America. But, as the findings described above illustrate, foreign-born “Islamic extremists” are not the most likely ones to carry out a terrorist attack inside the US. The ones most likely to carry out a terrorist attack inside our borders are “homegrown radicals.” Moreover, other groups, such as anti-government, right-wing extremist groups, may very well pose an even greater risk to American safety than jihadist terrorist organizations.
As described in a 2015 article in the New York Times, right-wing extremist groups have averaged 337 attacks per year in the US during the decade since 9/11. What’s more, these attacks have been responsible for 254 fatalities. In contrast, an average of nine American Muslims per year have been involved in terrorism-related plots against the US over the same period of time. Most of these plots were disrupted, but the 20 that were not resulted in a total of 50 fatalities.
Now obviously, the threat of a terrorist attack from a foreign organization, such as Al-Qaeda or ISIS, will likely never fully be eradicated. So, I don’t mean to sound like I’m downplaying or trivializing the very real danger posed by these groups. But given the research cited here, it’s difficult to accept the notion that foreign-born immigrants and refugees are any more dangerous, on average, than US-born citizens. Again, since 9/11, 82% of individuals accused of terrorist-related activities in the US have been citizens and legal residents of the US, not undocumented immigrants or refugees.
With that being the case, President Trump’s drastic and highly controversial crackdown on immigration will likely do very little to further protect Americans from terror. Moreover, it may do quite the opposite, as there’s every reason to believe that explicit targeting of Muslims, immigrants, and refugees will seriously damage American foreign relations and make life considerably more difficult – and potentially dangerous – for good people who, in many ways, are already marginalized, scrutinized, stigmatized, and vulnerable.
*Data from the New America report, “Terrorism in America After 9/11,” are publicly available and free to download. Click here to access the dataset.
Brian Kurilla is a psychological scientist with a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology. You can follow Brian on Twitter @briankurilla