Immigration: A National Security Imperative
May 13, 2019
This piece expands upon an opinion, "Immigrants help keep Americans safe," published in The Washington Post on April 1, 2019 and co-written by the author. It reflects the individual views of the author alone.
The capture in March of ISIS fighters responsible for a suicide attack on U.S. intelligence personnel in January revives a challenging pursuit of answers about what happened and is a tragic reminder of the crucial, if less-known, role that immigrants play in U.S. national security. Moreover, it serves as an important reminder that the U.S. intelligence community is dependent on immigration to maintain language and cultural skills that protect American lives every day. Although the immigration policy debate is often portrayed as a clash of American values, human rights, and pragmatic challenges, any solution must also recognize rational and pragmatic immigration as a national security imperative. As Americans consider the future of immigration policy, we must think about immigration as consistent not only with our values, but our safety. And we must demand that our leaders carefully consider the role immigrants play in national security by adopting a rational immigration policy that recognizes their value.
The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces captured the ISIS fighters, who were part of the last group to hold territory in the so-called caliphate in Syria. In January, the suicide attack they launched killed four American intelligence personnel in Manbij, Syria. Lost were U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jonathan Farmer, Navy Chief Cryptologic Technician Shannon Kent, Defense Intelligence Agency operations support specialist Scott Wirtz, and linguist Ghadir Taher, a Department of Defense contractor. Taher was a 27-year-old Syrian-American, an immigrant and naturalized U.S. citizen from East Point, GA, who volunteered to deploy to combat in Syria with the U.S. military as a linguist. Her heroic sacrifice is the latest in the history of American linguists—former immigrants, many from the countries the Trump Administration attempted to ban upon taking office in 2017—that have patriotically volunteered to join the U.S. military and its contractors as linguists.
Immigrants serve in many roles within the U.S. government and national security communities. Many serve in the military and contribute in a myriad of ways. But it is in the roles of linguist and cultural adviser that they play an especially crucial role that cannot be replicated by someone with non-native language and cultural skills. Although the American public has learned about the many foreign interpreters who have worked for the U.S. government abroad, the brave actions of American citizens—all immigrants or the children of immigrants—have received far less attention.
In order to protect Americans and defeat adversaries, U.S. government officials—including diplomats, intelligence officers, military members, and law enforcement officials—depend on language and cultural experts around the world. In particular, the U.S. intelligence and special operations communities, which conduct highly classified operations, depend on U.S. citizens with security clearances to serve as linguists and cultural advisers. In most cases, only immigrants with U.S. citizenship can offer the skills needed while qualifying for such clearances. And the stakes are high. A misunderstood sentence could result in the loss of key intelligence or trigger a gravely mistaken operational decision. As a result, Americans depend on small immigrant communities in the U.S. to participate in the government's most difficult and dangerous missions.
The commitment immigrants have made to U.S. national security cannot be overstated. Like U.S. soldiers, over 30,000 Iraqi-Americans, Syrian-Americans, Afghan-Americans, Pakistani-Americans, and others have quietly left or paused their lives in the U.S. to deploy to war zones around the world. They have been attacked, killed, and wounded alongside soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and intelligence officers in places ranging from Somalia to Iraq to Afghanistan. As defense contractors, most do not receive medals, parades, or other recognition.
Without immigration, the U.S. military could find itself ill-prepared for future conflicts. When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the 368,000-member active duty U.S. Air Force had one lone native Pashto speaker. In the years after 9/11, thousands of Afghan-Americans joined the Department of Defense and intelligence community, many as contractors, to provide the language and cultural skills desperately needed by their country at war. Without the support of the Afghan-American community, the U.S. might not have routed al Qaeda, neutralized its leadership, and pushed the core group in Afghanistan to the brink of distinction.
National security requirements for immigration raise obvious questions about alternatives and the ways in which immigration policy might be reformed. Without immigration, can we simply teach Americans the language and cultural expertise they need to perform these roles? The short answer is no, not on the timeline or scale necessary to respond quickly to military contingencies. The U.S. government maintains robust language and cultural education programs within the Departments of State and Defense—plus the many programs offered by private and public educational institutions—but fluency in languages, dialects, accents, nonverbal behavior, and other cultural cues requires years of immersion. And even years of experience are often no replacement for native cultural awareness. Rather than being taught in a classroom, many languages and cultural cues can be fully understood only by native speakers born and raised in a cultural environment.
So what kind of immigration policy do we need for national security? The national security case for immigration is obviously a practical one, which does not take away from historical facts that we are a nation of immigrants and immigration has long been consistent with our values. We don't know with any real certainty the extent to which we will need immigrants with a given background or origin in the future, perhaps even decades ahead. We must think broadly about the benefits of immigration, including in the national security context. For example, had the United States not accepted—without a specific national security rationale—Afghan refugees in the 1980s and Iraqi refugees in the 1990s, who would we have turned to in our most recent conflicts? A small army of native cultural and language experts cannot be created overnight. From a national security perspective, immigration may pay dividends decades after refugees are admitted. In welcoming Afghan refugees during the Soviet-Afghan war and Iraqi refugees during Saddam's reign, it was unforeseeable that the U.S. would find itself needing thousands of linguists in those places for almost two decades. Nor was the rise of ISIS and the U.S. intervention in Syria likely when the Arabic-speaking immigrants who later served there arrived in the United States. Although future conflicts and intelligence requirements are difficult to predict, we can accept immigrants that we hope may one day choose to serve our public, including in national security.
Furthermore, we can conclude with confidence that American interests—notwithstanding the even broader leadership role the United States continues to play in the modern world—will always take our diplomats, service members, intelligence officers, and law enforcement agents to the far corners of the globe. And pursuit of those interests will always demand the language and cultural skills immigrants provide. Therefore, we can start by recognizing our need for a broad base of diversity in our immigrant population, representative of the global population, which can be built through many programs, from work visas to refugees to political asylum.
Future wars in far-flung places around the world may be won by immigrants. Americans may not be able to predict all future threats to come, but we should know that immigrants from all over the world bring skills, diligence, and loyalty that will make our children safer for generations. As John F. Kennedy once said in A Nation of Immigrants, "Perhaps our brightest hope for the future lies in the lessons of the past." Let's learn this one now.