Terrorism and immigration

Modern terrorism is the use of violent, brutal force against civilians and the deliberate targeting of noncombatants for political or religious reasons. It is a tactic widely abhorred in the legal traditions of the English and French who settled North America. It is most often resorted to by groups that are otherwise too weak to bring about change through legal or traditional military means. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, terrorism was most often associated with central and east European anarchists, socialists, and communists who used bombings and assassinations to influence labor policy or change the political structure. After World War II (1939–45), it became increasingly associated with fundamentalist Islamic organizations who opposed pro-Israeli policies and feared the growing secular influence of Western culture. Bombings, hostage taking, and hijackings were among the most common methods utilized by terrorists until the 1990s, when suicide bombings became the most common form of terrorist activity. At exactly what point the use of subversive activity moves from legitimate means to terrorism is closely connected with one’s cultural values. As a result, when immigrants to North America were involved in violence, their activities were frequently cast in terms of terrorism. The tensions surrounding the legitimacy of terrorism were dramatically heightened as a result of attacks carried out by Islamic fundamentalists on September 11, 2001, on U.S. soil, launching an extended public debate over the place of terror within the Islamic community and the ability of Muslims to be true to the more extreme interpretations of their faith while remaining good citizens of constitutional states.
Terrorism can be home grown. The Ku Klux Klan of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Weathermen of the 1970s, and a variety of violent militia organizations of the 1980s and 1990s all used violence as a means of addressing what were perceived as inequities within the legal and constitutional framework of the country. Until September 11, the most deadly act of terrorism in North America was the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City by two members—both born and raised in the United States—of an antigovernment militia. Immigrants and outsiders have, however, been more frequently branded as terrorists. In part, this tendency toward nativism relates to general social and cultural differences that are necessarily present when different ethnic groups come into contact with one another. English colonists in North America, for example, were quick to condemn the British Crown’s use of “barbaric” Hessian mercenaries from a region in Germany as a deliberate infliction of foreign violence during the American Revolution (1775–83). A particularly explosive aspect of these cultural differences was more often evident in politics. Prior to World War I (1914–18; see World War I and immigration), the United States and Canada shared many assumptions and experiences regarding immigrants. In both countries, individual actions based on constitutional processes and representative forms of government were upheld as the only legitimate means of political change. Both countries barred the entry of paupers, the mentally ill, and those considered mentally defective. Also, immigrants routinely crossed the border between the two countries looking for work.
In many parts of the world, however, where individual rights were not protected and political pariticipation was not permitted, people often embraced collective, extragovernmental, and even violent tactics to help bring about political change. As a result, political movements associated with socialism and anarchism were particularly associated with immigrants. When an 1886 labor demonstration at the Haymarket Square in Chicago led to a bombing in which eight policemen were killed, hundreds of socialists and anarchists were arrested. Eight anarchists, seven of them German immigrants, were convicted of conspiracy, and four were hanged. Although three of the convicted men were eventually pardoned, the fear of immigrant radicalism lingered, paving the way for the widespread fear of foreign political activities in the 20th century.
Fears were heightened by a number of isolated but dramatic cases, including the assassination of President William McKinley by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz in 1901. As immigration from eastern and southern Europe peaked in the first decade of the 20th century, labor unrest and violence increased and became most visibly represented in the militant activities of the transnational Industrial Workers of the World. Nativist fears were heightened by entry into World War I, which provided a further reason for suspecting the loyalty of Germans, Bulgarians, and Austro- Hungarians. Militant labor activity in Canada led to the detention of 8,000–9,000 enemy aliens. When the Bolshevik Revolution (1917) toppled the Russian Empire, a great Red Scare gripped both Americans and Canadians. Formation of the One Big Union (OBU) in Canada (1919) and the violence of the Winnipeg general strike (1919) heightened ethnic tensions. In the United States, European war and revolution led to increasingly restrictive immigrant legislation, culminating in the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 and in a revival of a newly invigorated Ku Klux Klan that was as much antiforeign as antiblack. In Canada, organizations that professed to “bring about any governmental, political, social, industrial or economic change . . . by the use of force, violence or physical injury” were declared illegal, and entry of immigrants from former enemy states was prohibited by amendments to the Immigration Act in 1919. The period required for naturalization in Canada was also extended by the Naturalization Act of 1920.
Although the use of violence for political purposes in the United States and Canada declined from the 1930s, there remained a silent mistrust of many, but not all, immigrant groups. The relationship between immigration and terrorism was highlighted by two high-profile cases as the new millennium began. In the September 11, 2001, attacks, most of the hijackers had entered the United States legally and engaged in pilot training while in the country. It was later discovered that a number of them were in violation of the terms of their entry but that the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) had not taken timely action against them. In October 2002, the Beltway Snipers shot 13 people in the Washington, D.C., area, killing 10 of them. The two men convicted in the attacks were John Allen Muhammad, American-born, who was loosely associated with the Nation of Islam, and his associate Lee Boyd Malvo, an undocumented alien from Jamaica who was scheduled for a deportation hearing at the time of the killings.
As a result of the September 11 attacks, the U.S. and Canadian governments were forced to confront terrorism as a domestic, rather than international, issue, which led to a series of immigration and travel reforms. In the United States the USA PATRIOT ACT was quickly passed, providing for greater surveillance of aliens and increasing the power of the Office of the Attorney General to identify, arrest, and deport aliens. The act also defined domestic terrorism to include “acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State that appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.” Also, monitoring of some aliens entering on nonimmigrant visas was instituted, passport photographs were digitalized, more extensive background checks of all applications and petitions to the Department of Homeland Security were authorized, the SEVIS database was created to track the location of aliens in the country on student visas, and the U.S. Attorney General’s Office was given the right to immediately expel anyone suspected of terrorist links. Also, the State Department introduced a 20-day waiting period for visa applications from men 16 to 45 years of age from Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Any application considered to be suspicious was forwarded to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), creating a further delay.

A–Z index