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The Security Crackdown After 9/11 Permanently Altered Life At The U.S.-Mexico Border


The world changed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, especially life on the borders. Panicked that foreign terrorists had easily entered the United States, the Bush administration severely tightened security at ports of entry. Twenty years later, southwest border residents lament that it has permanently disrupted their lives. NPR's John Burnett reports from Brownsville.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: On that morning 20 years ago, Raul Rodriguez was an immigration agent stationed on the International Bridge in Progreso, Texas.

RAUL RODRIGUEZ: I was out on the line. And all of a sudden, I get a call up in primary, where the vehicle lane is. And they said, stop all traffic. And so we shut down the border.

BURNETT: After that moment, nothing was ever the same on the Mexican or the Canadian border. Over the years, Rodriguez's agency, the INS, was rolled into the behemoth new Department of Homeland Security.

RODRIGUEZ: The priorities changed from drugs and aliens to terrorists. Our supervisors and our managers - they specifically told us, you better not let a terrorist through.

BURNETT: A whole generation of immigration agents was recruited in the domestic war on terror. And the millions of people who went back and forth across the southern border every week for work, for shopping, for school, for family visits and enjoyment - they became security risks. Here in Brownsville, a laid-back historic city in the southern tip of Texas with intimate ties to its neighbor across the border, Matamoros, the changes were immediate and profound.

MICHAEL SEIFERT: From one day to the next, you better have papers, and you better be somebody that we can verify. And you best of all better not look like a terrorist.

BURNETT: Michael Seifert, a former Catholic priest and a human rights activist, says the casual interchange between Matamoros and Brownsville screeched to a halt and has never resumed. Every U.S. citizen had to have a passport to get back into the country. Some locals who were birthed by a midwife didn't have a formal birth certificate.

SEIFERT: It looks great, I suppose, on paper. But down here it literally means you cannot go across the river and see your mom. And I had parishioners who had people die in their families, and they couldn't be with them.

BURNETT: Part-time students in Mexico who took classes at the University of Texas Brownsville campus were no longer welcome because after 9/11, America would only allow full-time foreign students, says Julieta Garcia, then-president of UTB.

JULIETA GARCIA: So our enrollment would have normally been 4,000 students a semester taking classes in English. It dropped down to less than 50 students.

BURNETT: Moreover, people just stopped going to Matamoros for a plate of cabrito or a pair of sandals or a good margarita. And parade officials stopped sending floats into Matamoros during the annual Charro Day celebration because of bridge hassles and cartel violence. A look at federal statistics reveals that 10 million fewer people crossed from Matamoros to Brownsville in 2019 compared to 2000 - nearly half as many.

GARCIA: It was a natural ebb and flow of traffic back and forth that stopped after 9/11.

BURNETT: And so have those measures that irreversibly changed life on the border better protected the United States? Acting Deputy Border Patrol Chief Manny Padilla says they have. He said his agents encountered nearly two dozen individuals on the southwest border last year who were on the terrorist screening database, the TSDB. He added they're not all terrorists. Some are family members or persons of interest.

MANNY PADILLA: September 11 really marked a transformational change for now CBP. We are way better posed to detect first and foremost and then identify and classify people that are coming into the United States.

BURNETT: As for the alteration of border culture, Padilla, who's from the Arizona border, says a bigger factor was the bloody wars between rival drug cartels that erupted in Mexico in the years after 9/11. People became afraid to travel to Mexican border cities.

PADILLA: Growing up in Nogales, Ariz., we used to freely come back and forth along the border. But I can also tell you that cartel violence became more prominent. You just don't have the same environment that we used to.

BURNETT: On that point that the environment has changed, U.S. border residents would agree their sister cities in Mexico have become distant neighbors.

John Burnett, NPR News, Brownsville.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLOCKHEAD'S "CARNIVORES UNITE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
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