The National Security Case for Immigration: How Immigrants and Minorities Have Boosted U.S. Hard Power


President Donald Trump’s recent comments at the CPAC convention were unsurprisingly lurid but reflect widely held fears about the dangers that immigrants pose to life and limb in America. The president told a parable about a snake who asks to be taken into a woman’s home and then bites her. When the dying woman asks why the snake did this, the serpent replies, “Oh, shut up, silly woman….You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.” After basking in the applause, Trump added, “And that’s what we’re doing with our country, folks.”

One of the thorniest policy issues facing the United States today is immigration. Too often those who seek to drastically reduce or even end immigration portray themselves as the only ones who care about national security. Fears like the president’s are overblown, to put it mildly, but they also neglect the fact that the United States reaps great security benefits from being a nation of immigrants.

This is not a reference to the fact that many minorities have served the U. S. national security community honorably and often bravely. Perhaps the most famous such contribution to American military efforts is that of the U.S. Army’s 442nd Infantry Regiment. During World War II this unit was manned almost exclusively by Japanese-Americans and it covered itself in bloody glory in Europe. Though the bravery and skill of the men of the 442nd was legendary, they performed tasks that members of any American ethnic group could have performed.

More to the point, immigrants, their children and grandchildren, and the minority communities they create have often bolstered American national security precisely because of their ethnicity. The United States needs to be able to exert power, often coercive and subversive “hard” power, around the world and even at home. Often, the efficient and effective application of hard power requires knowledge of languages and cultures that comes most easily to those born and raised in them. By the same token, the lack of such expertise can cost the United States dearly. Also, immigrants and refugees often have a burning passion to fight whatever tyranny or injustice forced them to flee their homelands. This has often led them to volunteer to work in the American defense community. A quick walk through the last hundred years of history shows how immigrants have uniquely contributed to U.S. national security, a lesson that should be kept in mind as some American policymakers seek to curb immigration on the grounds that it makes the country less safe.

During World War I, politicians including Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt emphasized “100 percent Americanism” and encouraged suspicion of “hyphenated Americans.” During this time, however, the man who headed the American Expeditionary Forces’ espionage operations and covert actions against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire was Emanuel Viktor Voska, a politically active Czech immigrant. Voska knew the fault lines of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and wanted to see his Czech and Slovak brethren freed from the that empire’s yoke. Late in the war, Voska and his son were dispatched to Italy, from where they used their cultural knowledge to encourage Czechs and Slovaks to desert, come over to the Italian side, and form units to fight alongside the Allies. Similarly, during World War II, many of the intelligence analysts in the Office of Strategic Services — the forerunner of the CIA — who studied Nazi Germany were refugees from Germany, often Jews. Legally speaking, many of them were enemy aliens. But they made great contributions to the American war effort, especially by laying the analytic groundwork for the occupation of Germany and for the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunals.

After the war, the Lodge-Philbin Act of 1950 allowed resident aliens to enlist in the U.S. military. Some 2,000 Eastern Europeans joined and many of them served in special forces units that would have operated in Eastern Europe had World War III broken out. Similarly, during the Cold War, many East Europeans, Russians, and, later, Cubans also joined the CIA or served in organizations it sponsored. A particularly large number of emigres were employed in the CIA-funded “radios,” Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, which broadcast news and entertainment behind the Iron Curtain, in the process being deeply subversive of the communist systems in those countries. One notable Cuban-American who worked with the agency was the legendary Félix Rodríguez, who — among many other contributions — worked alongside the Bolivian Army as it tracked down and killed Che Guevara.

After efforts against Castro’s Cuba faltered, a number of Cubans working for the CIA found themselves diverted to operations in Africa. More than 100 Cubans operated against communist guerrillas in the Congo during the 1960s, at one point rescuing a group of American hostages being held by the other side. Their anti-Communist beliefs made them happy to serve, and it was observed that they could be “completely deniable,” thus providing a unique intelligence advantage to the United States.

The 1960s were also the era of the Vietnam War, not a sterling success for the United States. In his memoirs, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara blamed that catastrophic debacle in part on the fact that the U.S. government had few experts on Vietnam. There were multiple reasons for this, including the fact that the government had never viewed Vietnam as of tremendous importance and that many Asia hands had left the government in the 1950s as a result of the actions of Senator Joseph McCarthy and others of similar persuasion. Another contributing factor, however, had to be that the Vietnamese-American community was of negligible size. In fact, between 1950 and 1974 only 650 Vietnamese came to the United States, not counting those who came for academic or military training.

The FBI, too, has benefitted from the service of immigrants. A particularly striking example in the national security realm is that of Dimitry Droujinsky, the son of Russian immigrants to Palestine who later came to the United States. Droujinsky had a multi-decade career in the FBI; his specialty was impersonating KGB officers to ensnare Americans who had spied for Moscow. His career reached all the way into the late 1990s when he came back from retirement to help bring to justice David Sheldon Boone, a former National Security Agency official who had sold sensitive documents to Moscow in the last days of the Cold War. Boone had Russian-language training and might not have been fooled by an FBI agent who had learned his Russian in a classroom.

Since 9/11, the role of ethnic minorities in the application of American hard power has only grown. Many Afghans and Iraqis, both immigrants and native-born American citizens, have worked as contractors at the National Training Center and the Joint Readiness Training Center, playing Afghan and Iraqi villagers to help U.S. Army personnel train for deployments in theater. In 2008, the secretary of defense launched a program called Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) intended to bring people with much-needed language and medical skills into the military in exchange for a fast track to citizenship. More than 10,000 people joined the military, mostly the U.S. Army, through the program. The vast majority of those are still serving, though the program is presently on hold. As of 2009, approximately 87 percent of the personnel recruited under MAVNI had at least a college degree, whilst 29 percent had a Master’s degree or higher. In 2017, however, the Pentagon put the MAVNI program on hold and its future prospects are uncertain.

Most recently, a 2017 book entitled American Radical: Inside the World of an Undercover Muslim FBI Agent tells the story of an Egyptian-American Muslim policeman who was motivated to join the FBI out of patriotism and also anger over the way al-Qaeda was defiling his religion and bringing hardship on Muslim-Americans. Under the pseudonym of “Tamer Elnoury,” he was able to ingratiate himself with a group of jihadists who were operating in Canada and the United States and who were in contact with senior al-Qaeda leadership. Due in part to his efforts, one of those jihadists was expelled from the United States and the others are in prison.

These contributions may seem marginal. But imagine if China had cadres of intelligence officers and military personnel who could pass for natives on the streets Washington, Tokyo, Canberra, Manila, New Delhi, and Moscow. It seems self-evident that would make China even more powerful. Surely the same logic applies to the United States.

“Elnoury” summarized the issue in the closing lines of his book. “Keeping America’s doors open ensures that when we are threatened by an enemy, we will always have someone who looks like them to help defeat them. Our best defense is inclusion.”


Dr. Mark Stout directs graduate programs in Global Security Studies and Intelligence at Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences Advanced Academic Programs in Washington, DC.  He has previously worked for the Department of the Army, the State Department, the CIA, and the Institute for Defense Analyses.

Image: National Archives and Records Administration