September 11, 2001, was a paradigm shift. It is considered the deadliest terrorist attack in world history: nearly 3,000 people died and thousands more suffered lifelong injuries, depression, and PTSD. After the collapse of the World Trade Center, a traumatized nation lived in fear of another attack, and amid the chaos, the United States set out to put national security above all else.
The 24-hour coverage of the attacks focused endlessly on the identity of the terrorists: non-citizens who could exploit “vulnerabilities” in the immigration system. In the eyes of the United States, “national security” required an urgent overhaul of the system – and the public agreed. People were willing to give full control to government agencies under the pretense that they were protecting Americans from terrorism. Strict policy changes in the name of national security, like the Patriot Act, went into effect. But both Congress and the website White House also focused on curbing immigration, allocating astronomical budgets to further tighten the borders, and increasing law enforcement against non-citizens, including Muslims, Latinos, and others who have no connection to terrorism.
One of the most influential creations has been the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Immigration Services and Customs Enforcement, commonly known as ICE.
However, communities across the country were also noticing the changes. In the years after 9/11, for example, Real ID legislation was introduced at the federal level. It was touted to standardize driver’s licenses across the U.S. by establishing minimum guidelines that individual states would have to follow when issuing IDs and driver’s licenses, including requiring verification of the legal status of each applicant. Because issuing driver’s licenses is a state responsibility, the legislation has been expensive and slow to implement, but combined with increased ICE partnerships with local law enforcement, Real ID has posed a major threat to people living in the United States without legal status. Unlicensed and undocumented drivers risk deportation every time they are on the road. In many places, this has led to drivers being targeted, resulting in arrests and family separations for minor traffic violations.
Immigration reform also remains a difficult undertaking. Prior to September 11, 2001, the incumbent Bush administration had indicated that it would support immigration-friendly laws, including pathways to citizenship such as the DREAM law. Indeed, hearings on the bill were scheduled for September 12, 2001.
However, after the attacks, the bill was shelved and has been in limbo for 20 years, leaving thousands of potential young so-called DREAMers in the dark. The proposal has also been revised and gutted as the US has undergone a sea change in thinking since 9/11. The law DREAM has reflected that change over the years.
September 11, 2001, marked a sharp, permanent realignment of U.S. immigration policy and attitudes. In this episode of Latino USA, we explore the major immigration changes and events of the last 20 years against the backdrop of that one cataclysmic day.