Has Immigration Supplanted Terrorism as America’s Political Panic?

    John Moore

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It’s amazing how much a nation’s focus and fears can change over a brief ten-year span. Amazing, but hardly surprising given the major events that have driven these changes in the United States. After 9/11, the atmosphere in the U.S. changed drastically. The focus was drawn down quick and hard on terrorism and on terrorist attacks. The whole of America’s fear, anger, and political attention was very much focused on this one topic. FiveThirtyEight compares the American attitude at the time to 24, starring Kiefer Sutherland; the Homeland Security, hunting down weapons of mass destruction and killing terrorist cells vibe was on the mind. I’d suggest an alternate comparison: the anti-terrorism ads on TV that played for months and months after 9/11.

You may remember them — usually following along the lines of “terrorists win by creating terror; the way to win is by living your normal life.” Possibly an attempt to keep panic and fear from having an even more marked affect on the economy and on national sentiment, they were rather counteracted by the intense focus terrorism saw in political rhetoric and debates.

FiveThirtyEight made a graphical examination of presidential administrations’ use of “terror” in their public addresses. There are various spikes shown, especially around presidential elections, but after Obama took the presidency, mentions basically dropped down and retained that low level across Obama’s time in office. The same can be said for Congress, which shows comparatively a very high number of “terror” mentions up until about 2007/2008, after which the numbers remain fairly low.

Whether the changing rhetoric was in response to public opinion shifts or an attempt to guide it, political rhetoric can be a bit like cloud cover; it hints at what weather to expect later. Of course, events are the biggest sparks toward change. Before the 2012 wiki leaks, more Americans were likely to say that the government didn’t go far enough with its anti-terror policies, based on Pew Research data compiled by FiveThirtyEight. Then, after 2012, there’s a reversal of opinion with more saying that the government’s anti-terror policies tend to “restrict civil liberties” instead, a sentiment likely only increased and continued by Edward Snowden’s NSA disclosures. Immigration, as we’ll get to later, is comparable in this. Prior to the media attention on unaccompanied minors, immigration reform was a growing storm, but hadn’t arrived in full force.

While the president certainly doesn’t want flack from NSA and surveillance reform, the change in terrorism rhetoric was at least in keeping with his desire to call focus to other areas apart from events overseas. Steven Weber, previously employed at the U.S. State Department, told FiveThirtyEight that Obama “wanted to define his presidency with something other than counterterrorism.” So what precisely is the new definition? That’s the question.

First off, it’s notable that terrorism might see new attention given the activity in Iraq recently. President Obama announced humanitarian aid efforts — both military and otherwise — to the Yezidis, as well as authorizing air strikes near the Kurdish capital of Erbil against ISIL. However, terrorism and Iraq are no longer the nation’s focus, and haven’t been for quite some years. For a while, “the recession” was what had us tied up and bound tight, restricting and guiding our political ideas. Now we’ve taken a small step away from that into the realm of “recovery,” “the economy,” and “immigration.” These, not “terrorism,” are new terms to be watching, our new political focus. It’s this season’s latest style in the panic department with one important caveat, which we’ll get to later.

Immigration to the United States decreased with the recession as the U.S. became a considerably less attractive place to come for work with the job market suffering. But immigration has also become a more politicized economic issue. The sentiment has sprouted up that we can no longer afford open arms.

“We already have financial troubles, we can’t take your poor, tired, or huddled masses, much less your kids,” has steadily become the viewpoint of many. With the media attention focused on unaccompanied minors flowing into the U.S., border control demands are resurfacing — though they weren’t too far below the surface to start — and “keep out” sentiment is reemerging loudly. In January of 2012, a Gallup poll showed that almost two out of three respondents were unhappy with the level of immigration in the U.S.. Still, at the time, Gallup’s polls were fairly positive about immigration, certainly not showing majorities desirous of major increases.

As of July this year, Gallup shows that one out of six name immigration as the most important problem for the U.S. From a longer viewpoint, we see a growing trend of concern about immigration.


It would be interesting to monitor the use of the words “immigration” and “border” by Congress and the presidential administration as FiveThirtyEight did for terrorism in five years time. I’d wager that there’s been some major spikes in discussions pre- and post-recession, and that especially in the last few months, rhetoric would be off the charts, making elections that much more interesting.

But while immigration has become a hot button issue with an enormous and growing control over public attention and concern, this is moderated and tempered by politicians awareness of their changing electorate. There are an increasing number of voters with sympathies for immigrants. Being seen as hostile by the Hispanic population in America would be a major mistake on the part of office-seekers or office-holders facing reelection. This is something of a relief. Economic strife does tend to bring out xenophobia in politics, as history has taught us. This may seem a bit histrionic, but ultimately looking at news from anti-immigration protests can prove it otherwise rather quickly.

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