If all you have is a hammer, as the saying goes, everything looks like a nail. And so it is with the Trump administration’s response this week to the 27-year-old man from Brooklyn who strapped on a homemade pipe bomb Monday with a goal of blowing up morning commuters in a Times Square subway station. Where some saw Akayed Ullah as a criminal, a terrorist and a recent convert to the teachings of ISIS, the Trump administration and its anti-immigrant allies saw an example of the evils of chain migration. Because Mr. Ullah came to the U.S. legally from Bangladesh in 2011 on a family immigrant visa, the suspect has now become a leading example of the dangers of allowing immigrants to help immediate family members immigrate, too.
Within hours of the failed attack, President Donald Trump was condemning immigration that permits children and siblings of U.S. citizens into the country as “incompatible with national security.” Press Secretary Sarah Sanders went further suggesting that if President Trump’s immigration reforms had been in place, Mr. Ullah could never had attempted the attack because he wouldn’t have been in the country in the first place. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a statement in complete agreement, adding that chain migration and the diversity lottery (which the White House blamed for the last New York terror attack, the rental car steered into a bike path by an Uzbek immigrant, killing eight) would turn away not only terrorists but “gang members, fraudsters, drunk drivers, and child abusers.”
But while it’s true that people who are refused entry into this country can’t easily commit crimes here, that’s also a pretty idiotic argument to make. First, it can just as easily be made in reverse — without such legal immigration, the U.S. would be denied the rewards extending from the 9.3 million people who entered the U.S. legally between 2005 and 2015 on family ties, or about 70 percent of the legal immigration during that decade. How many doctors, scientists, clergy members, teachers, police officers, military service recruits, social workers and so forth would have been lost? And chain migration candidates are still screened, so if there are national security threats among them, they may have become so after arriving.
Want to prevent mass murder? The worst act of terrorism in the United States tied to radical Islam since 9/11 was the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando last year, which killed 49, but the gunman was American born and, like Mr. Ullah, converted to the teachings of ISIS while living here. The worst mass shooting in modern history wasn’t done in the name of ISIS or by an immigrant at all. It isn’t even labeled terrorism because the Las Vegas shooter never claimed a political cause — yet his victims are just as dead. In fact the whole obsession with terrorist attacks belies much greater threats, from Baltimore homicides to car crashes. Heck, in 2015, toddlers took more U.S lives than terrorists, as the fact-checkers at Snopes.com once pointed out.
President Trump touts immigration reform for the same reason he lashes out at illegal immigration at a time when such behavior is in decline, not on the rise. It’s a constant appeal to the most base of human instincts, to be fearful of, and angry at, individuals who are new, who are of color, who practice a different religion from the majority. There is absolutely a reasonable conversation to be had about encouraging merit-based immigration, but there’s also one to be made about keeping families intact. Does anyone think we’re going to have a sensible policy discussion in the current climate of xenophobia and Islamophobia?
Let Mr. Ullah be tried as the legal citizen that he is and, if found guilty, let him be punished for his crimes. And investing in security at vulnerable targets like New York subways stops or in preventive efforts (like sensible gun control, for example) is worthwhile as well. But shame on the Trump administration for again using an attack as an opportunity to reach out to the lowest common denominator, stoking mindless fears and condemning the millions of people, whether they came from Bangladesh or Latin America, who are now valued, contributing members of society.
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