As ID points out in its May 2 editorial, the name of Osama bin Laden, among many other things, will forever be associated with the beginning of a decade of legal hardship, bordering on outright persecution, for millions of foreign born people in America. But did the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks (which, according to most estimates, killed some 500 immigrants at the World Trade Center alone) suddenly change a country which once welcomed immigrants into one which now regards them with hostility and suspicion? This question can be answered in one word: IIRIRA.
As everyone connected with immigration remembers, or should remember, IIRIRA, which among many other provisions that are unfriendly to immigrants, made the phrases "unlawful presence" and "aggravated felony" dreaded household words, was passed in late September, 1996, almost exactly five years before the 9/11 attacks. Certainly, at that time the possibility of domestic terror attacks was an issue, but only one of many, and no one seriously argued that this was the main reason for passing IIRIRA. This momentous anti-immigrant law was rushed through a Republican Congress in the dead of night without any discussion or debate, and was attached to a "must pass" military appropriations bill, only a little over a month before that year's presidential election. President Clinton had no choice except to sign it, or at least so it seemed.
IIRIRA was also not a reaction to any economic crisis. The economy had emerged from recession and was doing relatively well at that time. This law was instead motivated be a "backlash", as numerous media reports explained, against 30 years of immigration from every part of the world, not just northern and western Europe. The mantra among anti-immigrant demagogues in the 1990's was not "terror" or "jobs", but "culture", which is nothing but a euphemism for race.
There was widespread dissatisfaction in some quarters with the progress that America had made in allowing immigrants from East Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and Africa to become part of our society ever since the restrictive quotas against people from those areas enacted in 1924 were abolished in 1965. There was also, of course, intense feeling against the rapidly growing number of immigrants from Mexico and the rest of Latin America, even though the Western Hemisphere had not been affected by the 1924 quota restrictions.
On September 11, 2001, Osama Bin Laden gave the anti-immigrant restrictionists the pretext they had been looking for. For the next six or or seven years. the "War on Terror" became the excuse for every imaginable piece of anti-immigrant legislation or activity at every level of government, from attempts to impose English only laws and restrictions against drivers licenses for unauthorized immigrants, to increased workplace raids and an epidemic, which has now turned into a pandemic, of RFE's and denial notices for qualified people seeking legal visas or green cards.
Now that, to paraphrase President Obama, justice has fnally caught up with Bin Laden, the media, which initally accurately reported that his demise was mainly symbolic, have since gone into a frenzy of triumphalism by writing obituaries not only for Bin Laden, but of for the entire "War on Terror". But for immigrants, American restrictionism has moved on. Since 2008, if not earlier, the anti-immigrant mantra has beeen not terror, but jobs. If and when the economy recovers it will undoubtedly be something else. A Polish immigrant acqaintance once told me that there was a saying in his country: "someone who wants to beat a dog can always find a stick".
Roger Algase is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School. He has been practicing business immigration law in New York City for more than 20 years.