Policy Spotlight

This continues our series of student reflections andanalysis authored by our research team.

On September 18, 2018, the State Department released its new ceiling of 30,000 refugee admissions for the upcoming fiscal year (Malley & Pomper, 2018). This is the lowest level in the history of the 40-year old refugee resettlement agency, with the average acceptance rate at around 80,000. While the Trump administration did not directly cite national security concerns as a reason for the reduced ceiling, the new refugee admission policy is merely another reiteration of a nearly two-decades long trend in which immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers were denied entry to the United States, many on the basis of national security.

Prior to 2001, it appears that the issues of immigration and national security were unlinked. Major domestic terrorist attacks such as the World Trade Center Bombings in 1993 and the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995 led to changes in the internal organization of domestic intelligence agencies, passage of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (A.E.D.P.A.), and passage of the Omnibus Counterterrorism Act of 1995 to outlaw fundraising for Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs). Interestingly, prior to the attacks of 9/11, no Congressional push for decreased immigration or refugee admissions cited a major terror attack as a basis for the bill. In fact, following the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam U.S. Embassy Bombings in 1998, President Clinton signed a budget bill that supported pro-immigration measures, such as allowing 50,000 Haitian refugees to stay in the country and increasing the number of visas granted to foreign professionals (Ojito, 1998).

Following the terror attacks on September 1st, 2001, an implicit connection seems to be made between national security concerns and immigration/refugee admissions. This makes logical sense as the 9/11 hijackers did enter the United States using various types of visas (Friedman, 2017). However, following the changes to security protocols in the wake of the attack, only one individual out of all domestic jihadist attackers would have needed a visa to enter the United States at the time of their attack (Peanha & Lai, 2015). Additionally, the New York Times released a report in 2015 stating that the threat of foreign terrorists coming through the refugee program was lower than even the risks of routine travel (Peanha & Lai, 2015). The movement away from foreign terrorists (meaning individuals who are not born in the U.S. or naturalized citizens) and towards domestically radicalized individuals is in direct contrast to an increase in the number of Congressional bills seeking to limit refugee and immigration admissions while citing specific domestic terrorist attacks, such as the call for halts on Syrian refugees following the San Bernardino Attack of 2015 and the Pulse Nightclub Attack of 2016 (Peanha & Lai, 2015). Additionally, executive orders like President Trumps travel ban, unveiled in 2017, aimed to reduce immigration and refugee admissions from countries that were believed to pose a threat to national security and/or that were affiliated with terrorist activity.

While research examining the relationship between immigration/refugee policies and national security concerns has been conducted by institutions such as New America, the Atlantic, and Only Through US (Bergen, Ford, Sims, & Sterman, n.d.; Friedman, 2017), the Prosecution Project can help to shed light on this issue by examining domestic terrorism across all ideologies. The majority of these reports exclusively focus on jihadist terrorism in the wake of 9/11, without comprehensively including threats from other ideologies and organizations, such as right wing extremists, white supremacists, and eco-terrorists. If the goal of national-security-related policies is to prevent further attacks on American soil, research to support these policies must examine all manners of domestic threats. Furthermore, research of this kind can help determine whether the connection between national security and immigration/refugee policy is still relevant at this moment in time.


Sarah Moore is a senior team member of the Prosecution Project and a former intern at Only Through US.


Friedman, U. (2017, January 30). Where Americas Terrorists Actually Come From. Retrieved September 20, 2018, from https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/01/trump-immigration-ban-terrorism/514361/

Malley, R., & Pomper, S. (2018, September 18). Trumps Refugee Fiasco. Retrieved September 20, 2018, from https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/09/18/trumps-refugees-announcement-220063

Ojito, M. (1998, November 1). THE 1998 CAMPAIGN: IMMIGRANTS; Once Divisive, Immigration Now a Muted Issue. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/1998/11/01/us/the-1998-campaign-immigrants-once-divisive-immigration-now-a-muted-issue.html

Peanha, S., & Lai, K. K. R. (2015, November 25). The Origins of Jihadist-Inspired Attackers in the U.S. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/11/25/us/us-muslim-extremists-terrorist-attacks.html

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *