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Immigration Policy: Q&A With SPAA Professor Ariane Chebel d'Appollonia


In the first weeks of his presidency, President Trump has promoted a hardline stance on immigration with plans to curtain illegal immigration from Mexico with a border wall between Mexico and the United States, as well as a travel ban on immigrants from several predominately Muslim countries. 

On Feb. 28, 2017, President Trump delivered remarks prior to his joint address to Congress suggesting that he is willing to find a bipartisan compromise on immigration. During his address, he echoed his commitment to his administration’s existing immigration measures, weaving uncertainty about his position.

We spoke with Rutgers School of Public Affairs and Administration (SPAA) Professor Ariane Chebel d’Appollonia to gain a better understanding of the Trump administration’s immigration policies. Chebel d’Appollonia has spent her career researching the politics of immigration and anti-discrimination, security issues, racism and xenophobia, extreme right-wing movements, urban racism, and European policies.

The Trump administration seems to have two distinct focuses regarding immigration policy: expanding the eligibility for deportation for immigrants, particularly Mexican immigrants, and cementing a revised travel ban targeting predominantly Muslim countries.
Can you discuss which government agencies are responsible for those priorities and how those agencies will be affected?

Well if I may, I will disagree with your statement that there are two different initiatives. They are part of the same agenda based on the assumption that immigrants, especially illegal immigrants, are posing a threat - a threat to economic prosperity, a threat to social benefits, a threat to national identity, and now a threat to security.  This is the securitization of the migration agenda.

So who is involved in the implementation of this agenda? There’s the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which is the big umbrella. Within DHS, there is U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE is in charge at the federal level to implement this security driven agenda, but people from ICE are perfectly aware that more border controls will not limit the number of illegal immigrants because the main source of illegal immigrants is visa over-stayers. About 40 percent of illegal immigrants in this country are visa over-stayers. With regard to Islamic extremists, the administration’s measures regarding refugees are not going to secure the homeland because most terrorists are homegrown terrorists, some of them are not even Muslim-born, they are converts. Some will try to point to the San Bernardino attack in 2015 with the woman who was involved as a counterpoint, but she was not part of a refugee program, she was here on the basis of family reunification. So instead of saying we need a wall or spending more on border controls, we need more appropriate and more effective implementation of the policies that already exist. Instead of a ban, we need more reliable intelligence with people trained on how to deal with the radicalization process and have good knowledge of de-radicalization initiatives. When one person commits a terrorist attack, that’s already too much, but we need to put things into perspective.

I’m not dismissing the dramatic nature of terrorist attacks, but you have a higher chance of dying by falling out of your bed or being killed by lightning than by a terrorist attack. Even after 9/11 when thousands of people died, there were more people who died from car accidents in less than one month. You know what really kills Americans? Heart disease, car accidents, and gun violence. You have a higher chance of being killed by a baby playing with a gun than dying in a terror attack.

What is the securitization process to which you referred earlier?

It relates to the framing of immigration/migrants as posing a security threat by assuming a correlation between immigration and insecurity, and therefore between immigration and terrorism. It involves restrictive immigration policies such as the militarization of border controls, the use of counter-terrorist measures to police "suspicious minorities", and a dominant narrative fueling nativist reactions.

The idea of security is not so much to protect native workers, it’s always presented in terms of immigrants posing a threat, such as suggesting that “Mexicans are rapists” and illegal immigrants are criminals. Among immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers are even more perceived as posing a threat despite their extensive vetting process. We know for sure that refugees are not posing a terrorist threat. No refugees have been involved in a terrorist attack in the United States.

For example, the selection of the seven countries identified in the travel ban makes no sense. If you really want to stop potential terrorists from coming into the United States, you have to put Saudi Arabia and Egypt on the list – I’m just asking for some consistency. We’d also need to add France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Belgium, and Italy because there are homegrown terrorists that are Belgian citizens, British citizens, and so on. So if the motivation for the selection of the seven countries was to provide more security, it does not. You would also need to add Russia and China to the list if you want to fight against cyberterrorism. Indonesia is the biggest Muslim country and has some terrorist organizations so the current measures make no sense, but they make sense from the securitization perspective.

Why were those seven countries identified?

They were identified on the basis that the Obama administration listed them years ago as hubs for terrorist organizations. However, from the Trump perspective, you can’t criticize the Obama administration for being too lax and not effective with regard to security, and then use the same list. The Obama administration identified those countries a long time ago, but things are changing, we had the Paris attack, the Brussels attack, the Istanbul Attack, and many other terrorist attacks in Europe. So President Trump has to add the countries that I mentioned previously to the list if the goal is really to curtail the entry of potential terrorists.

These restrictive polices tend to legitimate the dominant narrative, but these policies have not worked historically, and they’re not going to work. More border controls don’t address the issue of over-stayers, and they don’t improve intelligence. It’s easier for ISIS (terrorist organization known as the Islamic State) to organize a terrorist attack in the United States by using a radicalized native-born person and use this person to commit a terrorist attack in the country – no need to cross the borders. I’m not saying that we don’t need border controls, but they aren’t good enough to address illegal immigration and not good enough to prevent terrorist attacks. In fact, it’s counterproductive, and that’s what I study in How does it feel to be a threat?, a book I published in 2015. These measures fuel anti-American propaganda, and help ISIS to convince people to self-radicalize here and commit terrorist attacks. That’s the negative part of racial profiling and discrimination based on concern about security.

With regard to the national conversation regarding immigrants, there often seems to be a primarily external focus. Can you discuss how Americans are directly affected?

We tend to believe that this security driven narrative is realistic, but it’s not when comparing the data and the facts from an objective perspective.

People who are native born will be affected when they have to go to certain countries because of family or work and can’t go because of the ban. The dominant narrative legitimizes extraordinary measures. There is an Italian philosopher Georgio Agamben who coined the notion of a “permanent state of exception” and this affects everybody – we are all under surveillance, we are all checked at the airport, and the wall and ban are not the most important part of these executive orders, they’re smoke and mirrors. The most important thing is that the Trump administration is trying to have access to all data to legitimize the excess of the National Security Agency.

To go back to just after 9/11 with the Patriot Act, we are all under threat because we are all under surveillance. And Trump started by saying that we need to have the data of all people who apply for the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program. More than 700,000 people applied for DACA and all provided their personal information. In the same executive order that mentioned the wall and had everyone focus on the wall, the Trump administration said we need to have access to this information to double check if they have criminal records and potentially need to be deported. But you understand that when the government starts to have access to some data there is no limit to what can happen with that data, which has a negative impact on civil liberties.