Build a Wall, Burn a Bridge

When the Twin Towers fell, I was a toddler on the other side of the world. I had no idea what a profound effect that moment would have on my future and the futures of so many others. In fact, I remained entirely unaware of the tragedy until I first arrived in New York.

Like many foreigners, I picked up a travel guide. “Best of New York” was old and outdated, published in 2001. It told me about the Top of the World observation deck. I learned how high it was and how many floors the buildings had, and then I learned that they no longer towered over Lower Manhattan. It was then that I began to understand.

When the towers fell, the nation was united in a moment of profound grief—the American people reported more trust in the government than since the 1970’s. However, this unity was short lived as debate now rages over the correct approach to terrorists and how much privacy we are willing to sacrifice for safety.

The threat of terrorism remains constant in the minds of the American public. With each successive attack, security tightens, defense spending climbs, and the American psyche is a little more shaken. The revelations about government surveillance and the National Security Agency have caused public confidence to plummet. Terrorism has instilled a paranoia and anxiety in American society that festers and manifests in growing distrust.

The United States has been closing itself off,  trying to use immigration laws as a weapon in the War on Terror. Deportations have nearly doubled, disproportionately affecting Mexican nationals, who make up 70 percent of all cases. 9/11 led to funding being poured into increasing militarization along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Though it has received less media attention, the Department of Homeland Security has also increased screening of buses and trains along the Canadian border. In addition, the U.S. has made it more difficult for people to obtain visas or become citizens.

The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002 and the Homeland Security Act raised entry requirements and required all non-residents to give biometric data each time they enter the country. This is the sole reason that my fingerprints are now on record. The National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, Patriot Act, Real ID Act, an expanded definition of terrorist activities, and naturalization delays worsened the situation further for foreign nationals and even lawful permanent residents.

Foreign students and other people with valuable talents and skills are finding it harder to set foot on American soil, nevermind live the American dream. Fear warps the American attitude towards those they perceive as “other,” from turning away war-ravaged refugees to giving voice to those who demand we build walls and close ourselves off from those that don’t look like us (or, at least, the majority of us).

Regardless of military efforts, terror is winning in people’s hearts and minds.

As Canadian citizens here on a visa, immigration is a touchy issue in my household. Before 9/11, our relatives already living in the US obtained a Green Card with relative ease, and our move here seemed like a sound decision.

While our lives here are not nearly as hard as some, we still harbor doubts about our choices. We came to the U.S. in 2009, and after more than seven years of my parents’ hard work, I am still applying to colleges as an international student, disqualifying me from many scholarship opportunities. During Stuyvesant’s college night, I asked about merit scholarships, mentioned to a college representative I was not a U.S citizen, and watched her face fall like a lead balloon.

I remain hopeful for a scholarship, and I plan to travel during my college years regardless. Studying abroad is one of the things I look forward to most about college, despite long lines, cancelled flights, and occasionally being stopped for deadly bright pink safety scissors.

In my opinion, experiencing different cultures is worth the discomfort. I am excited to see more of the world and spend time in a foreign country, progressing my education and broadening my worldview.

There is much to gain from an education abroad, especially with increasing globalization. Learning to cooperate with other cultures can be crucial to success in one’s career. Personal gain aside, studying abroad and traveling in general is an important form of soft diplomacy and cultural exchange.

Due to recent headlines, European destinations traditionally considered safe for American students, have redirected American students to other programs or sent students home.

However, unrelenting news coverage may be exaggerating the risks of traveling abroad. After 9/11, everything is looked at with a skeptical eye and media tells us we can no longer afford to be trusting. However, Americans abroad are far more likely to die from an automobile accident than a terrorist attack, according to Time Magazine. While it’s impossible to guarantee safety, studying abroad does not automatically increase an American’s risk of dying, and there are signs of hope that the U.S. is not entirely closing itself off.

The New York City tourism that had plummeted in the aftermath of 9/11 has largely rebounded, with more foreigners and Americans coming and going than before the attack. This cultural discourse has been severely hurt by the distrust that terrorist attacks has engrained into the American public, but such exchanges have enriched and built this country from the very beginning.

Perhaps it’s idealistic, but in a world of growing extremism, having positive experiences with different philosophies could help reduce the intolerance that fuels terrorism. If terrorism is psychological warfare on a society, than being cowed into staying home sounds like a battle lost.

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