EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Sept. 11, 2001, was the day Middle America began paying attention to the Southern border.

Hundreds of miles of wall have gone up since the terrorist attacks 20 years ago. Thousands of new agents patrol empty expanses between Mexico and the U.S., and acronyms like SENTRI, FAST, CSI for trusted-traveler and pre-screened cargo have become commonplace at ports of entry.

“Before 9/11, people looked at the border as a problem of states like Texas and California. […] There was an acceptance of certain levels of illegal immigration. That’s not the case anymore. There is more awareness, it became a national concern,” said Victor M. Manjarrez Jr., associate director of the Center for Law and Human Behavior at the University of Texas at El Paso.

The border wall in the El Paso Sector. (Border Report file photo)

In addition to what critics call a “militarization” of the border, billions of federal dollars have been invested in infrastructure and technology. Passports with radio frequency chips and handheld X-ray scanners are used routinely to verify identities and inspect vehicles coming into the United States by land.

Overnight, terms like border management and border control were replaced by the more urgent “border security,” said Manjarrez, a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Border Patrol.

“It used to be very common (for crossers) to say, ‘I forgot my ID.’ You asked them where were you born? Quiz them a little and eventually let them through. It used to be you could take a loved one to the airport and walk with them all the way to the gate. No more,” he said.

A border crosser places her passport on an electronic reader at the Paso del Norte port of entry in El Paso, Texas. (Border Report file photo)

The legacy of 9/11 is a more scrutinized and arguably secure border than in 2001. The flip side is that many of its residents have paid the price of that scrutiny and mistrust, others say.

“The biggest losers of the post-9/11 era were civil and constitutional rights on the border,” said Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights. “The so-called national security rhetoric brought about the militarization of the border and the criminalization of migrants. Every resident crossing the border is seen as a potential terrorist.”

BNHR every year canvasses the community to document official oppression and police abuse. Many of the complaints focus on immigration agents or incidents at the ports of entry involving legal residents of the United States.

The tragedy of the loss of nearly 3,000 American lives to al-Qaeda terrorists remains politicized to this day, Garcia said. Tremendous resources have been spent on shoring up security at the southern border, while the same attention hasn’t been paid to the border with Canada.

Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights. (Border Report file photo)

“I’m not saying we should militarize the border with Canada, too. The issue was politicized, it’s a distorted narrative that seeks to criminalize migrants of color that come in through the southern border,” Garcia said. “The U.S.-Mexico border is one of the most militarized places in the world when neither country is at war with the other. It’s not the product of a terrorist threat, it’s the product of anti-immigrant policies.”

Former Border Patrol El Paso and Tucson sector chief Manjarrez said the national scrutiny of the U.S.-Mexico border has experienced ebbs and flows in the past 20 years. “It’s up or down as other priorities come up. But now there is a greater sense of awareness about the vulnerabilities on our border,” he said.

Garcia agrees the issues brought up by the terrorists attacks two decades ago remain.

“Racism and discrimination were latent during (the Trump administration). He called Mexican migrants rapists and murderers and built a false narrative that this was the entryway for criminals and terrorists,” Garcia said. “The reality is that refugees, families fleeing violence, women with small children are the ones coming here. Many are still finding a closed border, many are still being expelled here (in Texas) while the governor wants to take up building walls. The border remains militarized.”