9/11 and Its Impact on Immigration in the United States

9/11 and Its Impact on Immigration in the United States

Monica Bhakhri, December 2016

There are a few events in American history that are as solemnly remembered as the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, commonly referred to as 9/11. There has been no other event that has impacted the lives of Americans or American policy as much as these attacks. The events that took place on this day and the days that subsequently followed determined American policies regarding foreign relations, war on terror, and specifically, immigration. Though immigration policy and reform had been a hot topic of discussion since the 1990s, the impact of 9/11 resulted in some of the most heightened immigration policies in our history, affecting everything from border enforcement to airport security.

“On the morning of 11 September 2001, 19 hijackers took control of four commercial passenger jets flying out of airports on the east coast of the United States”. The first two airplanes were flown into the Twin Towers, both symbols of America’s influence and power, in New York City’s World Trade Center. The third plane was flown into the Pentagon outside of Washington D.C., the headquarters of the Department of Defense. The last plane crashed in fields outside of Philadelphia and was not able to reach its target of the US Capitol Building. In total over 3,000 lives were lost on 9/11 and in the days that followed, this includes the plane passengers, hijackers, first aid responders, and others. The attacks were meant to cause more than just physical damage, they were meant to rock America to the core in all aspects of life and government [1].

In the months and years that followed, as America began to rebuild, several key events took place. First off, the al-Qaeda, under the command of Osama bin Laden, was found responsible for the attacks. In retaliation, the US government declared war against the al-Qaeda and anyone else that posed a threat to the American people and their peace, resulting in the “war on terror.” Since Americans were under stress and felt afraid, minorities, specifically those of Middle Eastern descent, and other brown skinned individuals were wrongfully treated and targeted. Lastly, there were several key policies and acts that were passed relating to immigration aimed to prevent future attacks.

One of the most monumental acts passed after 9/11 was the Homeland Security Act of 2002. This piece of legislation established the Department of Homeland Security, which has the authority to “to direct and control investigations that require access to information needed to investigate and prevent terrorism” [2]. The DHS oversees a wide range of agencies, including “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB)” [3]. This means that if the DHS sees fit, they are allowed to investigate and hold immigrants who are persons of interest, which is exactly what happened following 9/11. The creation of Homeland Security as a result of 9/11 was monumental to determining immigration policy and processes because the government was finally provided with a new level of authority and power over what it can do in order to prevent future attacks. Since 9/11, ICE has been critical in the screening and vetting of applications for visas. “In fiscal year (FY) 2010, [ICE] screened 950,000 applications, vetted 260,000 applicants, and recommended denial of visas to more than 1,000 applicants” [4].

Unfortunately, because of the increased fear of foreigners, Muslims, Middle Eastern people, and South Asians were unfairly targeted during the immigration processes, resulting in the denial of visas, arrests, and investigations of many. Along with the Homeland Security Act, the FBI created the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, which was created to register non-citizens in the country. NSEERS was set up at all ports of entry and exit in the United States allowing the government to register the movement of non-citizens, specifically the movement of male non-citizens over the age of 16. The implementation of the program was split into four groups with immigrants from different countries required to register within their respective “group”. There are 25 countries that fall under the special registration program and with the exception of North Korea, all of the countries are Arabic or Muslim nations. Under this program and through investigations, “the government arrested more than 1,200 people in the months after 9/11, but refused to release their names or their place of detention… More than 80,000 individuals were interviewed…, and over 13,000 were placed in removal proceedings” [4]. The immigration process for people from these countries is also significantly more intense since they are required to meet with immigration officers several times, court dates on arrival anniversaries, and only have access to select exit ports [2]. Though it is understandable that the nation was fearful after the 9/11 attacks, it seems unjust that certain immigrant populations were victims of biased policies and procedures that unfairly targeted them.

Another aspect of immigration that was noticeably affected after the 9/11 attacks was airport security. It is no surprise that airports are an extremely important part of immigration since they are the main gateways into a country and usually the most popular method as well. Following the 9/11 attacks, airport security was also federalized through the Aviation and Transportation Security Act. Before the attacks, security was the responsibility of each individual airport with no national standards or processes. But afterwards, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was responsible for establishing standards for security across airports in the country. As a result, strict guidelines for carry-ons were established, new security technology was installed, and airlines were re-outfitted to meet new safety standards. “In order to offset the added security costs, a “Sept. 11 fee” was tacked onto passengers’ tickets, with the TSA collecting nearly $15 billion collected over nine years” [5].

September 11, 2001 was a day that no one could have predicted yet it affected the United States of America in more than one way. From increased security to the legislation of several new bills, the way the government functions has been altered forever. More so, the 9/11 attacks changed America’s perspective on immigration and attitude towards certain immigrant groups. Even after a decade, the effects of 9/11 remain a very relevant part of our lives and its impact can be seen through numerous changes.


[1] “The 9/11 Terrorist Attacks – BBC – BBC – Home.” BBC History. BBC, 2016.
[2] Jachimowicz, Maia, and Ramah McKay. “‘Special Registration’ Program.”
Migrationpolicy.org. Migration Policy Institute, 03 Apr. 2003. Web. 28 Oct. 2016.
[3] Hesson, Ted. “Five Ways Immigration System Changed After 9/11.” ABC News. ABC
News Network, 2012. Web. 28 Oct. 2016.
[4] Chishti, Muzaffar, and Claire Bergeron. “Post-9/11 Policies Dramatically Alter the U.S.
Immigration Landscape.” Migrationpolicy.org. Migration Policy Institute, 08 Sept. 2011. Web. 28 Oct. 2016.
[5] Villemez, Jason. “9/11 to Now: Ways We Have Changed.” PBS. NewsHour Productions
LLC, 14 Sept. 2011. Web. 29 Oct. 2016.

Further Reading

Biddle, Wendy. Immigrants’ Rights After 9/11. New York: Chelsea House, 2008

Sampaio, Anna. Terrorizing Latina/O Immigrants Race, Gender, and Immigration Policy
. Temple University Press, 2015.

Worcester State University Fall 2022