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Balancing Priorities: Immigration, National Security, and Public Safety

RESEARCH Report by Sara McElmurry , Juliana Kerr , Theresa Cardinal Brown , and Lazaro Zamora
People wait in line at the US-Mexico border.

The United States needs pragmatic, sensible approaches to immigration that will improve the nation’s security while balancing its role in other key national interests.

Key Findings 

In response to 9/11 and other threats since, the US government has done a great deal to improve immigration and border processes to boost national security. Yet effectively addressing evolving threats depends on the government’s ability to balance the country’s immigration, national security, and public safety priorities. 

Current immigration policies and systems play an important role in protecting citizens. Federal immigration agencies are a central component of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Working in collaboration with federal intelligence agencies and local law enforcement at home and foreign governments abroad, the immigration system has become much more sophisticated and effective since DHS was created in 2001. Apprehensions of unauthorized immigrants along the border are at the lowest levels seen in decades. Screenings used to vet visitors, immigrants, and refugees have increased in complexity and efficacy. Programs that remove criminals from the country now increasingly prioritize enforcement resources to address public safety and security threats. 

Still, more can be done. Updating immigration laws and policies would allow the immigration system to more effectively respond to security threats while sustaining the economic, cultural, and social benefits of immigration. The United States can build on existing immigration enforcement and control measures to strengthen national security through several changes: 

  • Develop comprehensive, consistent metrics to:
  1. Measure the effectiveness of immigration and enforcement efforts
  2. Better allocate resources at the border and beyond, and
  3. Inform the public and policymakers on the state of border security. 
  • Complete a connected entry and exit system to track and deter visa overstayers and disrupt the international travel of dangerous individuals. 
  • Foster greater cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration officials to more effectively remove high-risk individuals from the US interior while building trust with immigrant communities. 
  • Screen unauthorized immigrants living in the United States via a mechanism for documentation, allowing immigration enforcement officials to focus limited resources on individuals of concern. 
  • Update and expand legal immigration visas to redirect illegal immigration flows to vetted channels while meeting economic and humanitarian priorities. 

Immigration reforms alone cannot address all the security threats facing the country. Much relies on defense, intelligence, and law enforcement apparatuses. However, the United States should develop practical immigration and border changes that can improve upon the existing security measures while recognizing other important national interests in economic security and meeting its humanitarian obligations. ​ 

About the Authors
Sara McElmurry
Nonresident Fellow, Immigration
Council expert Sara McElmurry
Sara McElmurry is a nonresident fellow at the Council, where she has contributed to a portfolio of research and analysis focused on immigration to the Midwest since 2014. She is also an award-winning communications strategist, having built media advocacy and multicultural outreach platforms for a number of national and local nonprofit organizations focused on immigration, education, housing, and health policy.
Council expert Sara McElmurry
Juliana Kerr
Senior Program Director - Migration, The Walder Foundation
Juliana Kerr is the senior program director of migration at the Walder Foundation, and the former director of Global Cities at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
Theresa Cardinal Brown
Director of Immigration Policy, Immigration Task Force, Bipartisan Policy Center
Director of Immigration Policy, Immigration Task Force, Bipartisan Policy Center
Lazaro Zamora
Senior Policy Analyst, Immigration Task Force, Bipartisan Policy Center
Senior Policy Analyst, Immigration Task Force, Bipartisan Policy Center