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U.S.-Mexico relationship deteriorating since 9/11

Audio

Aired 4/19/09

In the fall of 2001, almost a year into Mexican President Vicente Fox's administration, it looked like the United States had a new best friend on its southern border. But as KPBS Border Reporter Amy Isackson explains, the terror attacks of 9/11 triggered dramatic changes that have taken a toll on the U.S.-Mexico relationship.

Six days before 9/11,  Mexican President Vicente Fox's visit to Washington D.C. was all over the national news. It was a perfect morning for President Fox's arrival. He and his wife stepped out of their limo and were greeted by the President and First Lady. A military band played the Mexican national anthem and then the Star Spangled Banner.

It was a hero's welcome. The White House put on a fireworks show. A joint session of Congress gave President Fox a three minute standing ovation. He presented them with a simple message of trust.

President Fox: Trust needs to be the key element of our new relationship.

That day, President Bush proclaimed the U.S. had no more important relationship in the world than with Mexico. But five days later, on September 11th, all that went up in smoke.

Immigration became an issue of national security. The U.S.-Mexico border became a front in the war on terror. Messages of compromise were replaced with rallying cries like this one from Republican Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert.

Hastert: Our border is a sieve. We're at war. And we certainly need to act like we're at war and close the border.

Almost overnight, immigration and border agencies' mission changed from detecting narcotics and illegal immigrants to deterring terrorists and weapons of mass destruction. The federal government undertook its largest reorganization since the 1940s, merging five customs and immigration agencies under one roof. They beefed up the Border Patrol making it the largest armed law enforcement agency in the United States.

The government also added infrastructure along the U.S.-Mexico border. They installed flood lights, remote controlled cameras, motion sensors and radiation detectors.

Most recently, President Bush ordered National Guard troops to the border.
Despite these Herculean efforts, the number of illegal immigrants streaming into the United States through Mexico has remained about the same. However, beefed up enforcement has made sneaking across the border more difficult.

Traffic has increased in remote areas, like the Arizona desert and the back hills of San Diego. One recent afternoon, Border Patrol agents near Campo pulled 10 illegal immigrants from the back of an SUV.

Border Patrolman: I could see that the vehicle was riding low. I could see people moving around in the back of the vehicle.

Other smuggling organizations have literally gone underground.

Special Agent Frank Marwood: As you can see looking down this tunnel, it is a direct shot into the Republic of Mexico.

Last January, Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agent Frank Marwood pointed down the largest and most recently discovered tunnel. Agents have uncovered 43 underneath the U.S.-Mexico border since 9/11.
It is widely believed tunnels are used to smuggle drugs, not people. U.S. Customs and Border Commissioner Ralph Bahsam also worries they're the perfect avenue for weapons of mass destruction to be ferried into the United States.

Bahsam: Every single entry, we have to deal with as if it were the worst possible situation.

Although there's no evidence WMDs or terrorists have crossed the border.

Immigration specialist Wayne Cornelius at UCSD says this tighter border enforcement has had unintended and severe consequences.

Cornelius: We have greatly increased the danger, the physical risk associated with illegal entry. So we have many more fatalities. Smugglers have been able to raise their rates very significantly. Far more migrants are extending their stays in the United States, if not settling here permanently.

According to most estimates 12 million illegal immigrants now live here permanently. That's up from eight million since 9/11. That rise prompted the House of Representatives to pass a get tough immigration bill last year. This in turn angered many of the immigrants it targeted and sparked a spring and summer of pro-immigrant marches. Thousands like Andrea Arisiaga in San Diego took to the streets to voice their anger.

Arisiaga: We are here. And something needs to be done. You can't just walk by and smile at us and pretend everything is OK.

The U.S. Senate chimed in with a compromise bill that created a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants in the United States and a guest worker program. The House and Senate have not reconciled their bills. Many people now predict there's no chance for compromise this year.

This immigration bottleneck extends to the border at San Ysidro.

Alex Hidalgo sits in his car cursing the traffic during his daily commute from his home in Tijuana to work in San Diego.

Hidalgo: People start honking and yelling. And people get out of their cars and start attacking people in cars because people cut in front of them.

Since 2001, traffic here at the world's busiest border crossing has nearly ground to a halt. Wait times routinely exceed an hour in the fast pass lane and can stretch to more than two hours for regular traffic. The long lines have forced people to develop new skills. Look around and you see women who have perfected the art of curling their eyelashes while not giving up an inch of space to the surrounding traffic.

And new businesses have also developed. For example, the coffee shop now makes a bundle delivering cappuccinos to cars.

But the San Diego Association of Governments says if traffic flowed more smoothly, 83,000 jobs could be created in San Diego and Tijuana. And the region would stand to gain $8 billion annually.

Amy Isackson, KPBS News.

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