The wide-ranging reforms that followed the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States significantly strengthened the national security capabilities of immigration agencies. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created to bridge gaps between the intelligence community and immigration functions. Yet, the restructuring was not comprehensive, and threats to national security continue to evolve. In addition, while the tendency to frame immigration policy through a security lens predates the Trump administration, this now routine practice clouds the picture of who and what pose a threat.

By Amy Pope

This report takes a critical look at the increasingly complex security threats U.S. immigration policy must manage—from public-health emergencies, such as the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, to the activities of transnational criminal organizations.

It assesses the tools available to respond to these threats, and the successes and challenges to date in innovating as risks evolve. To do so, it traces the evolution of the country’s immigration and border control system, with a focus on how institutions and processes have developed since 9/11.

While the U.S. government has made important progress in shoring up weaknesses in its defenses at the nexus of immigration processes and national security, this analysis identifies a number of critical gaps that remain—from a need to more clearly define mission space, to effectively sharing information and transitioning to electronic-based systems.

Under the Trump administration, resources and political will have also been steered away from core DHS national security missions, including disaster response, cyber security, and general policy and planning in favor of immigration enforcement measures focused on low-risk unauthorized migrants and asylum seekers.

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