Marking 9/11 With Hope, Not Fear of the Other

groundzero memorial

Memorial near Ground Zero. (Photo: Octavio Rojas/flickr)

There was hope for immigrants and their families during George W. Bush’s presidency—the promise of change in our country’s immigration system—before September 11, 2001.

A Migration Policy Institute (MPI) report reminds us that “the U.S. system seemed poised for a major immigration reform in 2001,” before the attacks in New York and Washington, DC.

During the first nine months of that year, both chambers of Congress approved extensions of a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act which allowed unauthorized immigrants eligible for green cards to adjust their status without leaving the country. Bipartisan groups in both the House of Representatives and the Senate introduced versions of the DREAM Act which were received favorably by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Bipartisan support was also given to a pair of AgJOBS bills that had been introduced.

President Bush, who supported all these immigration reform initiatives, also met with Mexican President Vicente Fox five times during this period to strengthen the relationship between Mexico and the United States and to address migration issues that bedeviled both countries. The presidents even established a high-level working group mandated to develop a comprehensive bilateral migration deal.

On September 6, 2011, Bush and Fox formally endorsed a framework agreement that would have included a path to legalization for undocumented Mexicans in the U.S. Five days later, we were all shaken by the tragic events in Manhattan, Shanksville and D.C.

The trauma and fear of 9/11 squelched any dreams immigrants and their families might have had for immigration relief and resolution. “The public debates and new policy measures that followed initially conflated antiterrorism measures with immigration control,” writes the author of the MPI paper.

Most Americans never thought they’d see the day when the mainland would be attacked by foreign enemies, much less by a ragtag band of terrorists. In an instant, we lost our sense of safety and superiority.  We felt a profound insecurity about our place in the world. Our leaders, swayed by this sentiment, sealed our borders, targeted certain immigrant groups, and made life all the more difficult for immigrants and their loved ones.

Most of us, I think, feel a bit less threatened nowadays. We haven’t suffered another terrorist attack in the U.S. and Osama Bin Laden has been killed. While some of us might get nervous around September 11, there’s something else that is now keeping us fearful and insecure – our flailing economy and the inability of our leaders and “experts” to find a solution.  We feel far less optimistic about our future and our children’s chances.

This has led some of us, as in other times in our history, to look unkindly at the foreigner and vent our frustration and anger at people who share the same aspirations we have and American ideals we hold dear.  Individuals who work hard, contribute to our economy and society, and help keep our nation vibrant and strong.

As we mark the tenth anniversary of September 11, let us not be stirred by base emotions that diminish all of us and prevent the country from moving forward. Rather, let us be motivated by sentiments that have made this nation great—freedom, opportunity, equality—and have faith in our shared future.

You can follow Erwin de Leon on Twitter or read his blog.

Listen to the Fi2W Podcast: How 9/11 Transformed the Lives of Immigrants

AboutErwin de Leon
Erwin de Leon is a Policy Researcher and writer based in Washington, DC. He writes on immigration, LGBT, and nonprofit issues. You can follow him on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.