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Obama's National Security Strategy Could Upend Immigration Debate

New America Media, Op-ed, Edward Alden

 Mention immigration and national security in the same sentence, and the discussion quickly turns to terrorism, crime and illegal immigration, and the need to tighten the borders to protect against those threats. Just this week President Obama ordered 1,200 National Guard troops to the border with Mexico in the latest effort to do just that. But even as that debate grows ever shriller in the wake of Arizona’s new immigration law, the Obama administration’s National Security Strategy released Thursday could finally turn that tired discussion on its head. The real threat to U.S. national security, it rightly warns, is not the people we fail to keep out but those we fail to invite in.

The National Security Strategy (NSS), which is sent to Congress every four years, is designed to lay out in broad terms the administration’s philosophy on what is needed to protect the vital interests of the United States. It generally focuses on short and long-term military and other security threats. The most famous NSS, which was released by the Bush administration in 2002, created the rationale for the subsequent invasion of Iraq by stating that the United States would act to pre-empt potential security threats.

That’s the only way in which immigration has ever figured in previous administration strategy papers – as a threat. Most have made some passing reference to the need to control illegal immigration. The Clinton administration’s first strategy paper also warned that American openness to immigration raised the danger of economic espionage. The Bush NSS of 2002 was entirely silent on the issue.

But the Obama administration’s strategy shows a deeper understanding of the contribution of immigrants to America’s national security. The paper, for the first time, places immigration reform in the broader context of U.S. national interests. It starts with an obvious but all too often overlooked point: that America’s economy is the foundation of its national security. The United States will be unable to meet its security and political commitments around the world unless the economy recovers and grows more strongly in the future.

The engine of that economic growth is innovation, the capacity of Americans to be the first to invent, design and reap the profits from the next generation of technologies that will transform the way we live. As President Obama put it in his introduction to the strategy paper: “Simply put, we must see American innovation as a foundation of American power.”

That’s where immigration fits in. The United States has been alone among the world’s big powers in its ability to attract and retain the most talented immigrants from across the world, and it has been a remarkable windfall. Some 45 percent of the nation’s science and engineering Ph.D.s, and 65 percent of its computer science doctorates, are earned by students who were born abroad. America easily leads the world in the number of patents issued each year, and a quarter of those go to immigrant scientists and inventors, a hugely disproportionate number.

The Obama strategy, while hardly sanguine about the many economic challenges facing the United States, explicitly recognizes the strengths that come from such diversity. Immigration, the paper argues, must be part of the overall American strategy for strengthening its human capital. Improved schools, better science and math training, increased international education and exchange, and the reform of immigration laws are all part of a strategy to “ensure that the most innovative ideas take root in America.”

“Our ability to innovate, our ties to the world, and our economic prosperity depend on our nation’s capacity to welcome and assimilate immigrants,” the paper says.

What the paper does not note is that the policies of the past decade have weakened that capacity. Foreign students, while still coming to the United States in large numbers, are increasingly looking to other countries, and the U.S. share of overseas students has been declining steadily. The Washington Post reported last week that Pakistani students, for instance, are almost entirely avoiding the United States because of fears that they will be associated with recent terrorist plots involving Pakistanis. Nor has the public debate over immigration reflected the idea that immigrants are this country’s greatest strength

The Obama administration has taken small steps to try to reverse these trends, in particular by improving the visa process. But without a broader reform of U.S. immigration laws, which remains hostage to a divided Congress, the United States will continue to make legal immigration far more difficult than it should be. At least the administration has finally made it clear the costs of that continued failure: nothing less than the future prosperity and security of the United States.

Edward Alden is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Closing of the American Border: Terrorism, Immigration and Security Since 9/11."



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