Islamophobia and the Making of Latinos/as Into Terrorist Threats

Luis A Romero & Amina Zarrugh. Ethnic & Racial Studies. Volume 41, Issue 12. October 2018.

On 9 October 2013, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez stated in a speech at the University of Texas at Austin that the US-Mexico border should become more militarized to stop “illegal” immigration and the entrance of terrorists. As evidence of the presence of terrorists, she cited that Border Patrol agents found candy wrappers with Arabic writing. While the notion of a border state governor using sweets as proof of terrorists entering the US is seemingly amusing, Governor Martinez’s statement highlights a trend that began in the mid-1990s and has become more common in the years preceding and following the attacks of 11 September 2001 (9/11)—the extension of Islamophobia to Latinos/as by merging immigration and terrorism issues in order to justify surveillance. Both Latino/a immigration and the potential for terrorism have been individual concerns for the US state and civil society groups at different times (Naber; Chavez). Yet, these two issues have been coupled over the last two decades and are thought of as a more dangerous national security threat than each is individually (Kyriakides and Torres). Thus, terrorism is used as a justification for deporting Latino/a immigrants and has become commonplace since the end of the twentieth century.

The issues of immigration and terrorism are not a natural fit in various ways, particularly in relation to Latinos/as. Latinos/as are often racialized as “illegal aliens”, but this racialization is not classically associated with terrorism. While the “illegality” surrounding Latinos/as has implications of criminality, this racialization is associated with economic and cultural xenophobia (De Genova). However, Islamophobia has traditionally associated Muslims with notions of “terrorism” (Ekman). While the majority of Muslims are not terrorists nor do they become terrorists, Islamophobia renders Muslims and even non-Muslim groups that are racialized as Muslim (e.g. Sikhs) as potential threats to national security (Taras). Yet, the dissonance between Latino/a “illegality” and Islamophobic notions of terrorism is not very different. Both Latinos/as and Muslims share a perceived “foreignness” to the US. Samuel Huntington best exemplifies this perception when he stated that Latinos/as and Muslims are detrimental and incompatible to US ways of life and will lead to a “clash of civilizations”. This sentiment forms the basis for the extension of Islamophobia that has been crucial for extending deportation coverage—it allows for policies and institutional foci that are normally reserved for anti-terrorism to be implemented in anti-immigrant efforts, most of which affect Latino/a immigrants.

Through an analysis of government reports, media accounts, and secondary data, we analyse how Islamophobic notions of terrorism have been extended to control and deport Latino/a immigrants. We examine how politicians have used the narratives of terrorism and border insecurity associated with Islamophobia to extend Islamophobia unto Latino/a groups, specifically Latino/a immigrants. In using the terms of “extension”, we are referring to how Islamophobia impacts other racialized groups (such as migrant Latinos). Political rhetoric ultimately influences immigration policies, transforms institutional resources to combat potential terrorist threats, which now include Latino/a immigrants, and contributes to the development of a deportation regime. We argue that through political rhetoric, policy, and institutional expansion, Islamophobia has extended to Latinos/as and their treatment in the immigration process. In doing so, we explore the functions and consequences of extending Islamophobia to Latinos/as. Understanding how the US extends Islamophobia to multiple racial and ethnic groups provides insight into a different source of power and fluidity for racism, how bureaucratic institutions combine to further empower the state and how racial framings can be combined in other settings.

Islamophobia and Latino/a Racialization

Early definitions of Islamophobia pointed towards the perceived natural antagonism and enmity between Islam and Christianity and, by extension, the threat to Europe posed by Muslims (Bravo López). Scholars now debate whether Islamophobia is a form of racism (Taras); those who argue that it is a form of racism suggest that there was an association between religion and race before the trans-Atlantic slave trade, to which many scholars date the emergence of race as a category and the racisms that follow. Meer suggests that “religious culture and biology are deemed as co-constitutive of a racial category prior to its articulation in Atlantic slavery and Enlightenment-informed colonial encounters” (387). This point underscores the notion that racism on the basis of religion, including Islamophobia, pre-dates 9/11 by centuries (Mignolo). Despite its long history, Islamophobia is not static and some argue that it is important to think of Islamophobia in its plural form, Islamophobias, to capture its range of features across different historical periods (Garner and Selod).

In this vein, scholars have recently focused on Islamophobia and racialization (Garner and Selod; Selod; Kundnani). For Garner and Selod, who maintain that Islamophobia is a type of racism, Islamophobia is best defined as “a set of ideas and practices that amalgamate all Muslims into one group and the characteristics associated with Muslims (violence, misogyny, political allegiance/disloyalty, incompatibility with Western values, etc.) are treated as if they are innate” (13). Kundnani’s understanding of Islamophobia complements this definition by specifying that it is a “form of structural racism directed at Muslims”, which points towards the role of institutions, such as the state, in devising exclusionary policies against Muslim communities, including surveillance programmes, racial profiling, and extrajudicial punishments (10; emphasis added).

We join these scholars in conceptualizing Islamophobia as a form of racism that, in the US context, has historically affected Arabs and South Asians in particular. Thus, we regard Islamophobia as the racialization of Muslims facilitated by state-level actions that marginalize individuals racialized as Muslims in Western societies in particular. As the notion of “phobia” implies, Islamophobia also represents an extreme and irrational fear of Muslims and Islam, which we observe most especially in discussions of the threat of terrorism. The racialized imagery of Muslims as terrorists is only the most recent iteration of a long history of negative stereotypes (Naber). Produced in part by scholarship and popular representations, there exists what has been termed an “Orientalist” depiction and framing of Muslims (and Arabs) as archaic, unchanging, and barbarous individuals with a penchant for violence (Said; Sheehan; Love). Other racial frames for Muslims predating 9/11 include a perceived incompatibility between Islam and modernity (Selod). In terms of gender, Selod finds that Muslim American women who donned hijabs were often assumed by strangers to “subscribe to anti-Western values where women are subservient to men” (86). These racialized stereotypes of Muslim misogyny, which have justified military interventions in the Middle East and North Africa since colonialism, continue to circulate in contemporary Islamophobias (Ahmed; Selod).

Among these racial frames, the terrorist racial framing has been especially enduring due in part to a burgeoning “industry” that advances Islamophobic ideas (Love; Lean; Kumar; Kundnani). The industry, composed of “foreign policy think tanks, universities, the political establishment and the security apparatus”, spans American partisan divides and circulates anti-Muslim sentiments to affect public opinion and influence policy (Kumar, 22). The impact of this industry on US politics is exemplified by a series of hearings organized by Republican Congressman Peter King in March 2011 to address “radicalization” among American Muslims. Citing figures circulated by terrorism “experts” in this industry network, King argued that national security concerns should extend to “homegrown terrorists”, individuals who are born or raised and self-exposed to extremist ideas in the US.

Under the auspices of this concern, Muslim Americans been subjected to wide-scale surveillance, including the embedding of law enforcement personnel in Muslim American mosques, schools, and neighbourhoods. Kundnani argues that this new aspect of Islamophobia intertwines surveillance “with the fabric of human relationships and the trust upon which they are built” (13-14). One consequence of this development is that structures of surveillance can easily extend to other types of “radicalism” (Kundnani, 14). This argument regarding the extension of surveillance apparatuses to other groups or issues parallels the focus of this article. Namely, this robust industry of Islamophobia has made intractable from popular culture, politics, and policing Islamophobic ideas and, accordingly, compels us to question the extent of its effects, including on other racialized groups like Latino/as.

Latinos/as also confronted different forms of racial framing in the US through the lens of migrant “illegality”, even before the extension of Islamophobia (De Genova). This racial framing connects immigrants and immigration with Latinos/as and vice versa. For example, Latinos/as, regardless of immigration status, are often thought of as “illegal aliens” (De Genova). The creation of the “illegal alien” racial frame for Latinos/as in the 1920s has its origins in US immigration law (Johnson; Ngai; Martinez) and has resulted in racism and violent acts against Latinos/as in US history. For instance, with the economic downturn of the Great Depression, anti-Latino/a and especially anti-Mexican sentiment led to the government-sponsored “Mexican Repatriation”—the “forced migration” (deportation) of over 1 million people in which an estimated 60 per cent were US citizens.

This racialization became more forceful after the 1930s, as Mexicans and other Latino/a groups were thought of in racial terms that made them vulnerable to exclusion and exploitation (Massey). In the 1950s, Mexicans faced segregation and similar forms of as African-Americans did in jobs, homes and public settings. “Operation Wetback” in 1954, an initiative of the US government to deport undocumented immigrants, resulted in the wrongful deportation of hundreds of Mexican US citizens despite their citizenship (Hernandez). Acts of violence against Mexican and Mexican immigrants were also common and allowed by law enforcement. Mexican lynchings in the Southwestern portion of the US were common between 1848 and 1929, with 597 verified cases and estimated cases in the thousands (Carrigan and Webb). The mob responsible was often not charged with a crime and many lynchings included police officers amongst its perpetrators.

The combination of the “illegal alien” racial frame, the fear and disdain for undocumented immigrants and the action many groups take against Latinos/as and Latino/a immigrants ranging from the Minutemen Project to Border Patrol agents in contemporary times create a powerful racial frame that is deployed against Latinos/as. Consequently, notions of Latino/a and immigrant illegality must be maintained in order to justify their removal, in the past and in the current moment (Golash-Boza). As we find in this study, the extension of Islamophobia exacerbates the anti-Latino/a framing that has existed since the racialization of Latinos/as in the 1920s.

The literature on Islamophobia and Latino/a racialization provides many insights into how Muslim and Latino/a groups are treated in the US. There has been some literature on how these phenomena intersect, particularly how the War on Terror affects the “immigration crisis” (e.g. Akram and Johnson; Johnson; Golash-Boza and Hondagneu-Sotelo; Kyriakides and Torres) or how Islamophobia and “Hispanophobia” have legacies that can be traced to colonial questions of modernity (Mignolo). Yet, this literature does not explicitly provide an analytic framework to help explain how racialized groups are affected by forms of racialization generally attributed to other groups. We extend the literature on Islamophobia to analyse how the racialization of one group is used to racialize a different group. Specifically, we analyse how Islamophobia is used to target Latino/a immigrants using a larger repertoire of racial understandings and the resources that they provide (e.g. material, symbolic, and emotional). We operationalize the extension of Islamophobia as instances in which traditional anti-Muslim sentiments, racial framings, and actions are utilized against another group (e.g. Latinos/as in this study). In the case of Latinos/as, the issues of immigration and terrorism are brought together and being used to racialize, and generate fear surrounding Latinos/as in non-traditional ways—one of the ways by which deportations can be justified. For example, Latino/a immigrants traversing the border are no longer criminalized exclusively as “illegal aliens” but are also criminalized as potential terrorist threats to American security. Thus, Islamophobia is extended to Latinos/as to garner political support, create fear, and justify increased policing for both groups at the US-Mexico border and within the US.


This study qualitatively traces the rhetoric of politicians, immigration policy, and the convergence of institutions after 9/11 to explain how aspects of Islamophobia influence increased immigration enforcement, surveillance, and deportations, the effects of which are felt perhaps most acutely by Latino/a migrants and communities. The data for this study include government reports, media accounts, non-governmental evaluations, statements made by politicians and government agencies, and secondary sources. We collected data for each of the levels of analysis—political rhetoric, public policy, and institutional levels. Data for the political rhetoric phase were primarily collected from newspapers while government reports, non-governmental reports, and media accounts were used as data to analyse Islamophobia’s extension in public policy and at the institutional level. This approach offers insights into how politicians draw on Islamophobia and, accordingly, identifies how Islamophobia operates and extends in unique directions. The multiple sources allow us to triangulate data to ensure validity, particularly given the methodological limitations associated with exclusively consulting newspaper data.

Data were collected from sources in the almost fifteen-year period between 12 September 2001 and 12 September 2015. This time period was chosen in order to analyse how politicians, policy, and institutions began to reflect the extension of Islamophobia several years after 9/11. Government reports and media accounts were collected using LexisNexis, the Newspaper Source, and the Los Angeles Times (Current) databases. The Newspaper Source provides full text for twenty US and international newspapers, which include USA TodayThe New York Times, and The Washington Post. This was supplemented with the Los Angeles Times (Current), which provided news from the largest daily newspaper in Southern California. The LA Times was selected also for its more regular coverage of politics at the US-Mexico border. Governmental reports were used as data pertaining to government agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Justice (DOJ), and immigration services including the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and its DHS replacements. Non-governmental evaluations were gathered from the Brookings Institute, Migration Policy Institute, and the Pew Research Center.

All databases were searched using Boolean search combinations (e.g. “terrorists” AND “immigrants”). Together, the authors defined three main types of discussions connecting terrorism and immigration: rhetoric, policy, and institution-based. Following these three levels, the authors coded a small selection of the articles together to ensure intercoder reliability (Corbin and Strauss; Rubin and Rubin). Each author subsequently coded the articles into each of the three categories independently. Following this initial coding process, the authors reconvened together to undertake selective coding to elucidate the qualitative dimensions of these three themes, such as the invocation of fear in political rhetoric. The data presented in the discussion that follows represent emblematic examples of how Islamphobia was extended at the level of political rhetoric, policy, and institutional change.

Tracing the Extension of Islamophobia

The extension of Islamophobia has occurred at three different levels of the state. First, various politicians were the first to espouse rhetoric that extended the politics of Islamophobia. While much of this rhetoric prevailed after the events of 9/11, it has continued to the present day with the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or sometimes translated as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS), despite the lack of evidence that ISIS is attempting to use the US-Mexico border as an entry point (Benen; Fox News Latino). Second, the extension of Islamophobia has also occurred at the level of policy. In particular, policies have provided resources to various enforcement agencies and immigration policies have stressed enforcement and the capture of terrorists. Lastly, this extension has been embedded within many of the agencies and bureaucracies themselves. It can be observed in how agencies concerned with terrorist attacks and immigration agencies came together to share resources against real or perceived threats. Islamophobia was embedded into immigration and anti-terrorist agencies with the creation of the DHS, which combined immigration and anti-terrorist bureaucracies at an institutional level. At each of these levels, the issues of immigration and terrorism became intertwined in novel ways, which has implications for how Latinos/as have been framed to the public and how deportations have been carried out.

Political Rhetoric Level

The deployment of Islamophobia at the level of political rhetoric was characterized by politicians, who mobilized popular fear among the US public about the issues of immigration and terrorism. The instrumentalization of collective fear by politicians is by no means a new technique. Throughout the early twentieth century, political figures framed particular immigrant groups—including Catholics, Chinese, and southern and Eastern Europeans, among others—as threats to the integrity of American society (Chavez). While the use of fear in order to garner political support has attenuated in some respects, this mode of politics defiantly re-emerged with the re-election of former California Governor Pete Wilson in 1994. Wilson reintroduced for the first time in decades a fierce politics of fear vis-à-vis immigrants and undertook a series of TV ad campaigns replete with imagery of immigrants crossing the border with impunity and as criminals in jail (Berke; McDonnell).

The popular rhetoric of fear exemplified in the instrumentalization of Islamophobia following 9/11 draws on this history while also taking it in new directions. In the immediate aftermath of the 11 September attacks, some politicians connected the events to the issue of immigration, as California Republican US Representative Elton Gallegly stated:

Everything that happened that infamous day in New York City was a direct result of how our immigration system has failed … Anybody who tells you different is not being intellectually honest. (Talev)

As little as a few months following 9/11, politicians began framing the issues of immigration and terrorism as inseparable. Specifically, issues of security and threats to the nation were tied to immigration and, in particular, the border. The words of Republican US Representative Thomas G. Tancredo from Colorado, who also founded the Immigration Reform Caucus in 1999, exemplify how the issues of terrorism and immigration were brought together: “Porous borders cause enormous problems and prevent our ability to maintain any kind of security” (Peterson and McDonnell). US borders, in particular the US-Mexico border, became politicized in new ways. As Tancredo went on to say, “The defense of this nation begins with the defense of its borders” (Peterson and McDonnell).

This inclusion of terrorism in immigration debates in the months and years that followed 9/11 implies that the individuals who attacked the US somehow entered the country illegally. In fact, none of the hijackers who orchestrated the attacks on 11 September entered the country illegally; all nineteen men entered the US legally and only three had overstayed their visas or violated the rules of their stay in some manner (Peterson).

Despite the thin link between the specific acts of 9/11 and issues of illegal immigration across US borders, politicians continue to politicize the US-Mexico border and extend Islamophobia through the linking of terrorism and immigration. The specifics of this instrumentalization have become more pronounced throughout the years and have been advanced by politicians across the political spectrum. In 2006, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) came under fierce criticism by Latino/a groups for an advertisement that fashioned Latino/a immigrants as terrorists. The brief ad was quickly removed from the DSCC’s website but is reported to have been organized as follows:

‘Security Under Bush and GOP?’ flashes on the screen at the start, followed by scenes of terrorists, bin Laden, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and footage from recent terrorist attacks. With disconcerting music in the background, the words ‘4 times as many terrorist attacks in 2005’ appears on screen. (Hurt)

This imagery of terrorism was interspersed with footage of immigrants climbing over a border fence until the ad closed with the statement “Feel safer? Vote for change” (Hurt). The linking of immigration and terrorism, facilitated by racialized imagery of Latinos/as and Arab and Middle Eastern figures associated with fundamentalism, illustrates how politicians seek to garner political support through the extension of Islamophobia and the promotion of a politics of fear surrounding US security that highlights US vulnerability on the two fronts of illegal immigration and religious fundamentalism.

There have also been numerous reports of US politicians citing contentious cases in which Qur’ans, prayer rugs, or Arabic writings litter the terrain near the US-Mexico border (Banks). In other cases, politicians claim that terrorists are frequently apprehended along the border. For example, in 2005, Republican US Representative John Culberson from Texas claimed on Sean Hannity’s conservative radio talk show that an Al-Qaeda terrorist had been apprehended in West Texas:

They had al-Qaida terrorist, an Iraqi national who was on the FBI’s terrorist list as an al-Qaida member, in the Brewster County jail. (McLemore)

Despite the representative’s claims, the Brewster County sheriff vehemently denied that there had been any arrest of terrorists in the area and the FBI emphasized in response that claims of terrorists being detained in West Texas are amplified beyond what can be said to be happening on the ground (McLemore). The director of the Texas Homeland Security office, Steve McCraw, drew upon the issue of appearance in the search for terrorists stating, “But it’s difficult to vet a terrorist. They don’t readily admit they’re terrorists. And they don’t look like terrorists. They look like Americans” (McLemore; emphasis added). McCraw’s statement illustrates how issues of ascription and race are central to understanding the extension of Islamophobia to debates about immigration. Politicians have oversimplified the issue of border security by racializing the threat posed to US citizens in the form of a Muslim terrorist while simultaneously advancing immigration agendas.

The extension of Islamophobia has been particularly acute in the last several years given the rise of ISIS. As recently as April 2015, rumours circulated that ISIS was erecting a training camp near Ciudad Juárez, a Mexican city on the border near El Paso, TX. Though US administrators were quick to dismiss these claims, politicians have nevertheless sought to politicize US vulnerability to attacks from ISIS. US Senators such as Ted Cruz and John McCain have implied that US citizens are in danger of ISIS attacks at the interface of the US-Mexico and US-Canada borders, respectively (Fox News Latino). Implications like the ones illustrated above work to extend Islamophobia unto Latino/a immigrants. The dangers of the border, where “illegal” immigration was once the primary concern and thus the framing that was attributed to Latinos/as, have now extended to that of terrorism. By doing so, narratives and framings of both “illegality” and “terrorism” become inscribed on Latinos/as, allowing for policies to be implemented against them as if they were terrorist threats.

Public Policy Level

The extension of Islamophobia undertaken by politicians was sought to generate fear in order to garner political support at crucial electoral moments. Their statements, however, have often moved outside the realm of rhetoric to become policy-level proposals. The second level at which Islamophobia has extended to Latinos/as and immigrants is in policies proposed by congressional representatives or by specific agencies of the state. These policy proposals range from abstract, overreaching suggestions, such as sealing the border, to specific, concrete plans, such as implementing a tracking system for visa holders. What is common to all the proposals, however, is a greater enforcement and effect on non-citizens. This enforcement is in keeping with a tradition in US history of policy-level responses to threats being organized around distinctions between “us” as citizens and “others”, namely immigrant groups and non-citizens (Motomura).

On the abstract level, politicians have proposed new systems of surveillance that target immigrants as potential terrorists as well as more aggressive approaches to securing the border. Representative Elton Gallegly stated in 2001, “We haven’t had a tracking system … Now the chickens have come home to roost” (Talev). Gallegly’s comments suggest that a form of surveilling immigrants beyond the moment of their entry would, in some way prevent, or create awareness of, those who have plans to conduct terrorist operations. Likewise, Republican US Representative Tom Marino from Pennsylvania critiqued a senate bill for not surveilling undocumented migrants, or those whose visas have expired, and enforcing their deportations:

… the Senate bill does nothing of substance to send back the illegals [who] we know are here, and it does nothing to process the individuals [who] have been ticketed to come back but don’t show up (Krawczeniuk)

Politicians have also mobilized around initiatives to increase greater surveillance of migrants, especially for visa holders. While implementing existing laws regarding immigration is not controversial by itself, it illustrates how Islamophobia has extended such that members of these groups are specifically targeted in a way that others are not, including indefinite detention:

Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft has proposed an emergency expansion of immigration laws to give authorities the right to detain for an indeterminate time foreigners suspected of terrorism or terrorist connections and to deport them more easily (Los Angeles Times)

After the attacks of 11 September, the Senate Judiciary Committee and Justice Department officials debated proposals that included continuing to use secret evidence that is not accessible to immigrants or their clients in deportation cases, many of which targeted individuals from the Middle East who did not have connections to terrorist groups (Peterson and McDonnell). These proposals also advocated for allowing deportations of legal residents for whom it could be proved that they supported organizations that threatened violence, of any form, against an individual or property (Peterson and McDonnell).

The issues of immigration and terrorism have been linked also in the policies surrounding the US-Mexico border. In the weeks following 9/11, attention turned towards Border Control agents and increasing their presence along the border as a means of protecting the US from future terrorist attacks (Miller and Anderson). Debates have henceforth raged about the efficacy and expense of a border wall. Despite these debates, many border walls have been erected between the US and Mexico, including an infamous section of the wall in California that runs between San Diego on the US side and Tijuana on the Mexican side, which was completed in 2015 after many delays. Most importantly, however, the justifications for this California-Mexico wall have shifted over time:

The fence was originally presented as a way to discourage illegal immigrants and drug traffickers from entering the country. Proponents now say that it is vital to keep terrorists from sneaking onto US soil (Simon)

The politicization of the border wall and the policies that developed illustrate the extension of Islamophobia to issues of immigration. The implementation of these policies has resulted in new forms of racialization for Latinos/as, which is observable in the ways by which the policies have differentially affected them. Not only have new laws been created but, perhaps more importantly, existing laws have been implemented to reflect the “terrorism” threat that is now perceived at the border. Namely, the use of laws established in the pre-9/11 and post-9/11 eras to deport Latino/a immigrants illustrate how they have been affected by the extension of Islamophobia. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA) and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) are examples of laws that that passed before 9/11—both of which became law in 1996—that have helped to extend Islamophobia’s reach. These two laws, coupled with the post-9/11 USA PATRIOT Act, broadened the range of cases that were subject to deportation. When AEDPA became law, it was primarily meant to fight terrorism as a response to the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995—a crime committed by two white American men. However, AEDPA, with the help of IIRAIRA, was broadened to affect immigrants, particularly those who were Latino/a (Johnson). Even then-president Bill Clinton conceded when signing the AEDPA into law that AEDPA “makes a number of major, ill-advised changes in [US] immigration laws having nothing to do with fighting terrorism”. The ill-advised changes to which Clinton referred included limiting judicial review for immigration decisions and expanding what an aggravated felony encompassed under the law (Johnson).

The USA PATRIOT Act worked similarly to that of AEDPA. It used the threat of terrorism to increase the number of ways that immigration services could deport Latino/a immigrants by expanding who could be perceived as a threat (Hagan, Eschbach, and Rodriguez). As Johnson (856) notes, terrorist activity “has gone the way of ‘aggravated felony’ for immigration purposes, expanded well beyond what one would consider to be truly ‘terrorist’ in nature”. A failed bill that attempted to merge terrorism with immigration was introduced in 2005 named the Border Protection, Anti-terrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act, also known as HR 4437. HR 4437 was set to increase security at the US-Mexico border by adding a double-layered fence and forcing state and local law enforcement to detain undocumented immigrants. Similar to previous policies mentioned above, the spectre of terrorism at the border was used to advocate for HR 4437. During Committee Hearings in Congress, an advocate of HR 4437 warned,

Terrorists would not find gaming [our current] system the least bit challenging and our government will have become their unwitting ally …  ultimately, providing them with the keys to the kingdom …  [to those] who would destroy our nation and slaughter our citizens.

While this bill failed, many other bills and laws, such as AEDPA, IIRAIRA, and the PATRIOT ACT, successfully sought to combine Islamophobia with Latino/a immigrants through the codification of law. By using terrorism as justification to expand immigration enforcement, Latino/a immigrants were now inscribed as potential terrorist threats along with the existing “illegality” frame. The effects of these laws as implemented by immigration and anti-terrorist institutions are seen in the increases in Latino/a deportations since the passage of these laws.

Institutional Level

The linkage of immigration and terrorism has been advanced through rhetoric and policy prescriptions but is most enduring through the establishment of institutional-level changes. Specifically, this connection materialized when different government agencies, which were working individually on terrorism and immigration, united. For example, the INS and the FBI were initially in charge of finding terrorists among immigrants, making “illegal aliens” the most heavily targeted group after 9/11 (Sharry). This probe was named the Pentagon/Twin Towers Bombing Investigation (PENTTBOM). During PENTTBOM, the FBI and INS used the vulnerability of immigrant status in the US to detain over 750 immigrants, many of whom were not involved in any terrorist activity (Department of Justice).

A DOJ report on immigrant treatment during PENTTBOM found “significant problems in the way the September 11 detainees were treated” (Department of Justice, 195). Among these problems was the INS’ failure to serve notices of immigration charges to detainees with a specified timeframe, hindering detainees from understanding why they were being held, obtaining legal counsel and requesting a bond hearing (Department of Justice, 195).

Another problem was in the FBI’s “hold until cleared” clearance policy, one that was not communicated in writing, but was the basis of how detainees were cleared. The report states that the policy was “based on the belief—which turned out to be erroneous—that the FBI’s clearance process would proceed quickly. Instead of taking a few days as anticipated, the clearance process took an average of 80 days” (Department of Justice, 196). More egregious, however, was the finding that

the FBI and the INS in New York City made little attempt to distinguish between …  aliens who, while possibly guilty of violating federal immigration law, had no connection to terrorism but were simply encountered in connection with a PENTTBOM lead. (Department of Justice, 196; emphasis added)

While the majority of immigrants detained were not Latino/a, PENTTBOM merged state resources to combat undocumented migration and terrorism together by viewing them as synonymous with one another—a third component of Islamophobia’s extension.

The merging of state agencies and resources to combat terrorism at the border continued after PENTTBOM. The most notable example was the creation of the DHS. Before 9/11, immigration fell under the purview of INS, which had been responsible for all immigration matters since 1933 (Department of Justice). The INS era of immigration reform officially ended in 2003 with the passage of the Homeland Security Act of 2002, uniting 22 federal agencies into the newly established DHS (US Congress). INS’s primary goal as an immigration agency was to handle the inflow of immigrants. While the “illegal alien” racial frame existed during the INS era and many unethical and ruthless tactics were used to deport immigrants, they were not viewed under the terrorist frame of plotting to destroy the US. As Kim notes, in the 1930s, when INS was housed in the Department of Labor, immigration was a labour issue; when it moved to the DOJ, immigration was a legal issue; the most recent move to DHS has made immigration into an enforcement and terrorism issue. Rick Swartz, an immigration expert and founder of the National Immigration Forum, observed that a “bureaucracy set up for homeland security purposes is bound to have a different culture and mind-set that attracts certain kinds of people to work there … It’s a cultural matter, and cultures get institutionalized in bureaucracies” (Kim). In other words, the conflation of immigration and terrorism was embedded into the culture of the new enforcement and immigration agencies.

This culture of conflating immigration and terrorism into institutions has directly impacted Latinos/as and Latino/a immigrants, racialized for years as “illegal aliens” who came to the US to “steal” jobs and take advantage of the welfare state before 9/11. Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union notes, “[t]he war on terror …  quickly turned into a war on immigrants” (Liptak). While it is difficult to untangle the exact effects that the “War on Terror” have had on immigrant deportations, there have been 4.2 million deportations from 1997 to 2012, more than double that of all deportations before 1997 (Golash-Boza and Hondagneu-Sotelo). In another study, Massey and Pren tracked the relationship between deportations and internal enforcement from 1965 to 2009. They found that most of the increases in deportation numbers can be attributed to the combined resources of DHS and its high-powered enforcement practices along with the expanded powers granted by AEDPA, IIRAIRA, and the PATRIOT Act, which were propelled by the racialized and Islamophobic rhetoric espoused by politicians (Massey and Pren). Moreover, the immigration factions of DHS (i.e. USCIS, Border Patrol and Customs) have deployed the “Other than Mexican” (OTM) and “special interest aliens” (SIA) categories to distinguish immigrants and create the illusion of a terrorist threat (Kyriakides and Torres). OTMs and SIAs imply that there are dangers entering the US beyond the average labour-seeking migrant, as evidenced by the rhetoric advanced by politicians. However, this threat is largely absent though it continues to provide justification for DHS and its many arms to raise the level of fear in order to justify its enforcement practices on immigrants who pose no threat to the US.


Immigration and terrorism have historically been separate political issues with distinct policy prescriptions. In the years leading up to 9/11 and after, however, the two issues were linked in unique ways. We examine how Islamophobia’s reach expanded beyond the treatment of Muslims as potential terrorist threats to include Latino/a groups.

In short, the findings suggest that this extension is observable on three distinct levels: political rhetoric, policy, and institutions. In terms of political rhetoric, it is clear that politicians across the ideological spectrum in US politics have mobilized together the racial frames for Latinos/as and Muslims in order to present and argue for a credible national security threat. This linkage serves to infuse elements of fear and insecurity into issues of immigration and terrorism, which offers new opportunities for political figures to critique their opponents on both fronts. This connection is most clear with regard to the politicization of the US-Mexico border despite the absence of evidence that the border was in any way connected to the modes of entry for the orchestrators and hijackers of 9/11, who entered the country through US international airports with valid visas.

With regard to policy, US administrators and representatives have engaged in new forms of agenda setting that exemplify the reach of Islamophobia on policies that affect Latinos/as. Namely, new policies have been developed that not only stitch together issues of immigration and terrorism simultaneously but also actually target and police Latinos/as disproportionately. Policies related to the admissibility of secret evidence in immigration cases and the development of a border wall between the US and Mexico illustrate how Islamophobic insecurity around terrorism has become a means to justify border control and to surveil and patrol Latinos/as under suspicion of being undocumented in the US despite not posing any explicit security threats. This took the form of policy through the passage of AEDPA, IIRAIRA, and the PATRIOT Act, which extended the powers of immigration services’ ability to deport immigrants.

The scope of Islamophobia reached its pinnacle at the level of institutions. Dramatic shifts occurred following 9/11 in the institutional apparatus related to immigration and terrorism. Most important and symbolic was problematic detainee treatment under the PENTTBOM probe and the eventual dissolution of the INS, from which immigration services were shifted under the purview of the newly created DHS. In this way, issues of immigration became firmly situated as matters of domestic security in a way that they had not been before. US border control measures also exhibited a shift from a mandate to control the border by preventing illegal crossings and drug interdictions to protect the border, and American citizens, from terrorist threats. This linkage of the issues of terrorism and immigration on an institutional level was accompanied by interagency cooperation in exchange of information that facilitated the criminalization of Latinos/as and deported them in the name of national security. The rhetoric surrounding Latinos/as, expansion of enforcement immigration policies and the combination of agency resources have allowed deportations to dramatically increase from the 1990s through most of the present decade (Golash-Boza and Hondagneu-Sotelo).

The extension of Islamophobia examined here is the fusion between Latino/a “illegality” and Islamophobic emphases on the threat of terrorism, which illustrate the dynamism of state racial projects. In particular, this study illuminates the fluidity of racism and racial framing and the real consequences, such as surveillance and deportation, which ensue from the connections and linkages between historically salient racial framings. Neither contemporary political rhetoric, nor policy, nor institutional change as regards immigration and terrorism can be properly understood in isolation without taking into account how these issues are brought together at specific moments in time. In fact, the endurance of certain political agendas is made all the more powerful through their connection with other important agendas, ultimately reinforcing one another.