After police identified the New York and New Jersey bombing suspect, Afghan-born Ahmad Khan Rahami, the reaction among some quarters was swift and immediate: This is yet more evidence of the threat unchecked immigration posed to the United States.
Donald Trump was, of course, the loudest. “This is only going to get worse. You have to stop them from coming into the country,” Trump said in a Monday morning Fox News appearance. But he wasn’t alone: Corey Lewandowski, his former campaign manager and current CNN talking head, warned that Rahami “rehighlights the problems we have with our immigration system.” (He then went on to mistakenly imply that Rahami was an unauthorized immigrant.)
A lot of media coverage, too, has focused on Rahami’s immigrant origins:
The media is bent on calling Ahmad Khan Rahimi an immigrant. As opposed to "US citizen," "28 y/o" or "NJ resident." pic.twitter.com/vEXOeowZJA— Tony Choi (@tonykchoi) September 19, 2016
But the there’s an important thing missing from this conversation: Rahami is a naturalized US citizen. Focusing on his Afghan origins implies that America’s relatively open immigration is to blame for Rahami’s crimes — when the real issue here appears to be radicalization inside the good ol’ US of A.
What labeling Rahami an “immigrant” misses
We don’t know when, exactly, Rahami’s family moved to the United States. But the Washington Post interviewed a “childhood friend” of his in New York, who used to play basketball with Rahami in their respective youths. So we know that he was pretty young when his parents moved over from Afghanistan.
This, right off the bat, tells you that something is wrong with the Trump narrative. He implies — and Lewandowski more-or-less outright says — that the problem here is insufficient vetting of immigrants before they came in the country.
But if Rahami was a child when he came over, then clearly that’s not the issue. The question is less, “Why didn’t we catch this immigrant terrorist at the border?” and more, “What happened inside the United States to make him become violent?”
This pattern — radicalization inside the United States rather than immigrants coming in — appears to be far more typical, at least when it comes to Islamist extremism. (We aren’t yet sure that was Rahami’s motivation)
Seamus Hughes, the deputy director of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, tracks detailed data on people “arrested, indicted, or convicted in the United States for ISIS-related activities.” I asked Hughes for data on the citizenship status of all 105 cases of all individuals charged with ISIS-linked crimes in the United States.
According to Hughes, the vast majority — 85 people, or 81 percent of the total — were US citizens. Eight were permanent residents, three were refugees, and one was undocumented (eight more could not be confirmed).
This data shows that the overwhelming majority of domestic ISIS sympathizers were either born in the US or had been living here for a very long time before turning to terrorism. (The average time to go from a green card to US citizenship is seven years.)
If we’re concerned about something like the Chelsea attacks happening again, we shouldn’t be focusing on the immigration system. Instead, we should be looking what it is about American society that causes a small number of people living in it to become attracted to radical ideologies — and at whether ISIS itself is helping to coordinate these attacks or simply providing the inspiration that leads would-be terrorists to attempt their own deadly attacks.
The broader picture: Immigration isn’t a major terrorist threat
Now, Trump might say there’s a broader issue here: That it’s not about when someone moved to the United States, but rather that immigrants — especially Muslims — are intrinsically likely to become terrorists regardless of when they arrived.
Setting aside the rather breathtaking Islamophobia implied in that line of reasoning, it’s also flatly wrong. There’s no evidence that immigration actually creates a significant terrorist risk — which is the second major problem with covering the Chelsea attacks using an immigration lens.
The best data on this comes from a recent report by the Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh. Cato is a libertarian think tank that has a noticeably pro-migration stance. But Nowrasteh’s research is on really solid ground: He combed through data on terrorism and immigration from nine different sources, covering 1975 through 2015.
Nowrasteh picked a methodology designed to produce an overcount, defining any attack on US soil in which an immigrant participated as a terrorist attack by immigrants, even if some native-born Americans also helped in its planning or execution.
What he found was striking. Virtually all the deaths from immigrant attacks (98.6 percent) came from one event: 9/11. Other than that, fatal immigrant-linked terrorist attacks in the US were vanishingly rare. The average likelihood of an American being killed in a terrorist attack in which an immigrant participated in any given year is one in 3.6 million — even including the 9/11 deaths.
That is a very, very, very low number. To put that in perspective, I’ve produced the following chart, which compares the average annual likelihood of American pedestrians being hit by a railway vehicle, dying due to their own clothes melting or lighting on fire, and being killed in a terrorist attack perpetrated by an immigrant. It’s quite revealing:
If you exclude the 9/11 attacks from this data, which experts believe are far harder to pull off now than they were then, you’re more likely to be killed by a lightning strike than a terrorist attack executed by foreigners. By a whole lot.
The point here is not to minimize the seriousness of what happened in New York and New Jersey. These bombs thankfully failed to claim any lives, but they very well could have if a few things had gone differently.
Rather, it’s to put the events in their proper context. The idea that these bombings, scary as they are, point to some broader vulnerability in the immigration system, or some broader propensity among immigrants to become terrorists, is simply false. A scary incident should not be cause for irrational fearmongering.