View from the border shows universal empathy
September 19, 2001
I live on the U.S.-Mexican border, 2,000 miles from last week's horrifying attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. Despite the vast physical distance from last week's events, my community was deeply saddened and shocked. We, too, are confronting similar fears about the future and our safety.
Following the terrorist assaults, the border became the focus of both government officials and anti-immigrant groups.
The morning of the attacks, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) implemented Level One procedures at border crossings. All vehicles were thoroughly searched. As a result, the amount of time it took to cross the border into the United States grew to four hours in some cases, where it normally would have taken 30 minutes. In a city where more than 1.5 million vehicles cross the border monthly, this had an immediate effect on people's lives. But I heard no complaints about the long, hot wait.
Also within hours of last Tuesday's events, anti-immigrant groups began calling for a complete closing of the border. Anti-immigrant rhetoric permeated Internet message boards. Many writers labeled Middle-Eastern immigrants -- and also alluded to Mexican immigrants -- as threats to the United States. They spewed their racist hatred in the name of protecting American freedom.
But immigrants are not the enemy. My community is 78 percent Latino, mostly of Mexican origin, and many of us are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. We know that a vast majority of people who cross our border come to the United States to work and to study. They come to improve their lives and to contribute to our nation.
But because of anger and fear, some Americans have spoken out against anyone who looks different. Some have verbally and physically attacked Arab Americans and others who appear Middle Eastern. So far, three immigrants have been killed in the United States apparently out of vengeance for the attacks.
We who live on the border have seen this before. We know what it is like to be labeled different, foreign and dangerous.
But I've also seen how the concern over the loss of life has transcended language, citizenship and the international dividing line.
At my favorite restaurant here in El Paso, Texas, American flags hang from the walls as Mexican music plays. A restaurant displays a sign, "Una nacion invincible," rendering the now often-quoted sentiment in Spanish. In class, one of my students talks about the sense of solidarity she feels on both sides of the border.
Tuesday's loss was not confined within our borders. Mexican television reported that an unknown number of Mexican citizens were missing in the World Trade Center attacks. The estimates range from 100 to 500.
Some worked as custodians and others as professionals. Asociacion Tepeyac de New York, a social-service agency that serves the Mexican community in New York, feared that many would remain unidentified because they were undocumented immigrants. I wondered how many had crossed here, bringing with them hopes and desires for the future.
Here at the border we remember the dead and pray for the survivors, both in English and in Spanish.
Yolanda Chvez Leyva is an historian specializing in Mexican-American and border history. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.