EL PASO — All remember where they were and the fear that gripped them that dark day — especially here, where unintended consequences rippled far and wide hundreds of miles from New York City all along the Southwest border.The worst attack on the U.S.mainland turned New York City and Washington, D.C., upside down.It rattled America, creating a new premium on security and safety that affected routines for everyday people everywhere, like at airports.
And here, along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, daily life was disrupted, changed forever.Families for more than a century had lived and breathed on both sides of the Rio Grande.Two countries, one culture.
Before 9-11, crossing the border simply required some residents to mutter “U.S.citizen,” or simply, “American.” Others took out their crumbled, coffee stained birth certificates, or permanent resident cards with pictures of them as babies, and showed them as proof they belonged on the U.S.
But the border has seen a massive security buildup.The borderline hardened and slowly split the people on both sides.Routine border crossing turned more intrusive.
It’s also become the backdrop for political theater for an array of politicians pushing even tighter restrictions and a militarized approach.
For people here, twenty years later, a question persists: Is the border really safer?
The answer remains a topic of debate among border residents, including a student, a grandmother, a rural sheriff, a veteran official with U.S.Customs Border Protection and a former U.S.Border Patrol Chief.
Today, the split between both sides, galvanized by the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and now COVID-19, which partially shut the border to non-essential traffic, threatens to make new divisions a permanent way of life.
A screen print by El Paso muralist Jesus Alvarado, “El Cimi,” captures the unease people feel over the hardened border.
It depicts people floating on a raft on the Rio Grande under the Santa Fe International Bridge with the caption: “This is not a border.This is just a river.”
El Paso muralist Jesus Alvarado, El Cimi, painted this screen print in 2015 to depict life along the border witht the Santa Fe International Bridge in the background.The caption in Spanish reads: “This is not a border.This is just a river.” Since 2003, following the creation of the cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security as part of the largest reorganization in the U.S.
government since World War II, nearly $1 trillion has been spent on keeping America safe.That’s more than the combined budgets of NASA, the Department of Justice and The National Endowment for the Arts in the same period.
An estimated $330 billion alone has been earmarked to protect the nation’s borders, according to an analysis by The Dallas Morning News .
Customs Border Protection employs more than 60,000.Among them, 19,000 agents of the Border Patrol, which doubled in size after 9/11 and is now the largest law enforcement agency in the country.Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, has an additional 20,000.
“To put that in perspective: When I retired, I was responsible for 4,500 agents — and that was just one geographical area, the Tucson sector,” said Victor M.
Manjarrez, a retired Border Patrol chief and director of the Center of Law and Human Behavior at the University of Texas at El Paso.“When I came in, the entire Border Patrol was smaller than that.”
Manjarrez worked with the Border Patrol for nearly 23 years in every border state as well as Washington, D.C.He was chief of the El Paso and Tucson sectors during his career.After 9/11, the mission suddenly became all-encompassing, with the new priority of gaining “operational control” of the border for “deterrence of any illegal entry,” something that Manjarrez said has “never been realistic” even if there were ample resources.
“It’s really about risk mitigation,” Manjarrez noted, adding that the focus should be on the most dangerous threats.
“It’s reducing the risk.”
Along with “boots on the ground” on the border and at highway checkpoints, there’s now unprecedented infrastructure and technology: cameras perched high all along the border, blimps that float over remote stretches, drones that fly along bleak deserts, Blackhawk helicopters that swoop in from the sky to catch smugglers trying to sneak migrants or drugs into the country, and more.
And the U.S.government has never had more knowledge about who is coming through legal border crossings, thanks to new technology from biometrics to facial recognition.
“You know we’re safer today than we were yesterday and tomorrow we’ll be safer than we are today,” said Roger Maier, a CBP official and spokesman for nearly 30 years, adding that the focus is on stopping terrorists and weapons of mass destruction.
“We really worked hard to push the border out beyond the physical border,” by, for example, placing officers at seaports across the country and around the world to pre-inspect large cargo ships bound for the U.S.“So that if there was a dirty bomb or, God forbid, a nuclear weapon, that could be detected on foreign shores.”
The El Paso-Juárez borderplex, the largest binational community on the Southwest border, like other border cities appears to some to have become a magnet for an insecure nation looking for scapegoats, though none of the 9/11 terrorists crossed through the southern border.
More than 120 miles east of El Paso, Culberson County Sheriff Oscar Carrillo was at a coffee shop in Van Horn when news broke of the first plane striking one of the Twin Towers in New York.He went from disbelief to realizing that life was about to change dramatically.
It began with security checkpoints immediately placed just to the outskirts of his town.They were there for three months, interrupting supply chains and the flow of trade.
Once ignored by Washington and Austin, Carrillo and just about every border sheriff now had a front-row seat to politicians eager to listen.Many spoke truths, he said.
A few perpetuated problems that were perhaps at times overblown.
Culberson County Sheriff Oscar Carrillo poses for a portrait on Thursday, June 24, 2021.(Lola Gomez/The Dallas Morning News) (Lola Gomez / Staff Photographer) “Who better to tell the story of the border than the sheriff’s on the border?” asked Carrillo.“So, that’s where [former Texas Governor] Rick Perry started taking groups of us up to Washington to talk to U.S.legislators, advocating border threats down here.So, that’s how the cowboy hats, the big belt buckles ended up in Washington, D.C., and Austin.”
But that funding has largely been left to state agencies rather than local law enforcement.
And in his 30 year career, Carrillo said he has yet to meet a terrorist, “just economic migrants looking for work,” coming in record numbers.
On the border a combined 15 million people live and work on both sides.
They are residents of 14 border sister cities that largely see themselves as one community.It’s a relationship based on cooperation, tolerance and understanding, born of necessity and bound by bloodlines that extend across the border.
Rebecca Hernandez, 28, came of age amid a climate of fear as seismic events shaped her life, city and region.She first heard news of the Sept.11 terrorist attacks on the U.S.
as an elementary school student
Rebecca Hernandez prepares to provide after school lunch to children in Chihuahuita, a neighborhood in El Paso that parallels border fence and a new toll road.One of the first things she noticed: “Bridge lines got longer and longer,” she said.“As the years went on, just the practice of going from one side to the other required so much more information, documents, passports.… Life became harder.”
Some border residents stopped crossing out of frustration, feeling their civil rights were being attacked amid the presence of so many badges.Among the frustrated was Jacob Fraire, an educator.Recently, he mustered the courage to cross and reflected: “After a 20 year absence, I returned to my birth place, Ciudad Juárez.The trip was strange, almost everything had changed, save the disparities.”
In El Paso, the famed Chihuahuita neighborhood stands just feet from what used to be the borderline with Ciudad Juárez — the meandering, easy-to-cross Rio Grande.Chihuahuita is so close to Juárez that some locals call it the Ellis Island of the Southwest.
The Rio Grande, which marks the U.-Mexico border line, as it passes through El Paso-Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, Mexico on September 9, 2021.
(PAUL RATJE / AFP via Getty Images) The old mesh fencing that was replaced by a new 18-ft high bollard style border wall starting near the El Paso Port of Entry and extending eastward along the Rio Grande River, seen Thursday, November 8, 2018.(Tom Fox / Staff Photographer) Today, it seems many miles away — split off from Mexico by a mesh fence after the 9/11 attacks and then by a wall under President Donald Trump.
The barrier between Chihuahuita and new toll road towers over residents who grapple with the whole notion of border security.
“Yes, I feel safer.It’s better,” said Dolores Jurado, 58, a grandmother more than a dozen times over.“I can now walk Chihuahuita without fear.” She said the extra law enforcement of recent years mainly serves to deter local gang members from hanging out on streets.
Dolores Jurado, a longtime resident of El Paso’s oldest neighborhood, Chihuahuita, says security has made her feel safer, espeically from local gang members in the area.After 9/11, private contractors looking to cash in on border security contracts, armed militia groups vowing to protect the border, and immigrant advocacy groups and nonprofits looking to help migrants and refugees all made a mad dash to the border.They were joined, of course, by countless border tours and photo ops by politicians stoking fear and seeking votes, with pledges to secure the border even tighter.
It’s a trend that only accelerated through the decades, especially in the Trump years.
Denis O’Hearn, dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at El Paso, has studied walls around the world.
He’s also author of Bobby Sands: Nothing But An Unfinished Song , which looks at the life of the young activist in Northern Ireland, a land gripped by violence and divided by walls arising from clashes between Catholics and Protestants.
“The problem with walls is once they go up it’s almost impossible to bring them down,” he said.
“And once walls go up, civil liberties get removed, and it’s hard to get them back.That has a lasting impact on you as an individual and as a community.”
Denis O’Hearn, Dean of College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at El Paso, has studied walls around the world.Immigration reform, meanwhile, came to a screeching halt as politicians from both leading parties wanted nothing to do with an issue now conflated with border security, said Manjarrez, the former border chief.
Now, immigration is instead outsourced to the organized criminal smuggling groups who replaced mom and pop coyotes because of a timeless lesson: The more the border hardens, the more profitable smuggling is, and smugglers raise their prices.
Many experts say drug cartels have grown even more powerful because of the lucrative business of human smuggling.
“It gave smugglers an opportunity to capitalize on the illegalness, the mess of it all,” said Carrillo, the sheriff.“My jail was soon packed with human smugglers.”
Their business is thriving more than ever while migrants are routinely ejected from the U.S.after crossing because of the pandemic-related policy established under Title 42, put in place by Trump and left there by President Joe Biden.Coyotes make a killing while the same migrants cross, get sent back to Mexico, then try to cross again and again until they get through.
A drumbeat of outright lies and misinformation also surfaced after 9/11, no less about some of the safest communities in the United States.These included, for example, a 2005 false report based on shaky intelligence about terrorists from the Middle East smuggling weapons of mass destruction through the Big Bend region in West Texas.
And a conservative activist group in 2015 claimed that the tiny Mexican subdivision of Anapra, next to Juárez, was a training ground for ISIS operatives.
Locals laughed when told of the allegations and promised nervous relatives in Texas they’d be the first to report anything suspicious.
“We’ve got your back,” one man said.
Authorities say the U.S.remains vigilant on the border.“You only need to be wrong once,” reminded Maier, the CBP official.
Others, like Hernandez, who works for an afterschool program, questions the meaning of safety and terrorists.
She’s thankful for the extra border security but acknowledges that while all eyes were on the border, a threat within grew.She points to her hometown of El Paso as an example.
On Aug.3, 2019, a man walked into a local Walmart and started shooting.
The massacre left 23 people dead and dozens injured.
After the shooting, some residents questioned whether putting up a wall to the east of El Paso should also be considered.
But the alleged shooter, or “terrorist,” as Hernandez referred to him, wasn’t from some far away land.Confessed Gunman Patrick Crusius, from Allen, still awaits trial.
“He was from Texas, which is one of the states that you consider to be most American,” Hernandez said.
This story is a collaboration between border-Mexico correspondent Alfredo Corchado and news director Angela Kocherga of KTEP public radio in El Paso.
She is also multimedia editor for El Paso Matters.Special contributor Marisol Chavez contributed to this report.
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