Chapter 13: The Border and Human Rights—A Testimony by Roberto L. Martinez

8.How did September 11th affect immigrant rights?

On September 11, 2001 the earth stood still, and watched in stunned silence, as three airline jets slammed into the World Trade Center's twin towers in New York and into the Pentagon. A fourth airliner crashed in a Pennsylvania field when passengers overpowered terrorists who government officials suspect were targeting the White House. Almost 3, 000 people would die that day.

The earth was not the only thing that stood still that day — all legislation concerning immigrants and refugees came to a grinding halt, including, discussions between Mexico and the United States regarding legalization for the millions of undocumented immigrants presently in the United States. Also at a halt, were the debates over legislation that would undo all the damage done by the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA) that is causing irreparable harm to legal permanent residents and their families all across the country.

On September 22nd, thousands of immigrant rights activists and supporters had planned to converge on Washington, D.C. to lobby Representatives and Senators on important legislation, as well as protest further militarization of the border, including the alarming increase in deaths on the U.S.-Mexico border caused by deadly Border Patrol strategies, such as "Operation Gatekeeper," and three others in Arizona and Texas. Over a hundred of us from San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco were planning to attend.

The debates in Washington, D.C., however, shifted from protecting immigrants to removing immigrants. Security now took priority over safety. All the gains we had won for immigrants over the last 20 years were now in danger of being lost because of the terrorist attacks. The USA Patriot Act, passed shortly after September 11th, would eliminate all due process rights for immigrants and anyone suspected of being a terrorist. Racial profiling was now expanded to include anyone who looked Arab or Muslim. Hate crimes against anyone who looked Middle Eastern were on the rise.

Civil liberty groups all over the country began sending out alerts warning of discrimination against Middle Eastern–looking people. However, what really put civil liberties groups and immigrant rights groups alike on major alert was the passing of the USA Patriot Act. IIRIRA was bad enough because it was made retroactive and targeted legal permanent residents who committed minor crimes up to 20 years earlier. However, under the Patriot Act, legal residents can be held indefinitely with no charges. In December of 1999 my office formed a support group for the hundreds of families in San Diego affected by this repressive law. The pain and suffering inflicted on these families by this law is unimaginable.

What this country has done is reduce a natural, human phenomenon like human migration to a humiliating, dehumanizing experience. It has also turned a fundamental human right into a crime, in the eyes of this country. The International Declaration of Human Rights states that every human being has the right to go anywhere in the world in search of a better life. Most of us in immigrant rights work agree that none of the above security measures are going to make the border any more secure.