Edging up on the tenth anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, the nation will soon get its fill of recounting the harrowing events of that day.
We will get to relive the horrors of so many innocent lives lost to those cowardly attacks, and we will remember the grim realization that followed for so many previously unaware Americans. After that day, there was no deluding ourselves that these shores were invulnerable to attack.
But away from the solemn ceremonies at Ground Zero, beyond the appropriate mourning for the dead - including grief for military men and women killed in the wars that followed 9/11 - we need to begin a different sort of reflection.
We need to think deeply and critically about how the United States responded - and continues to respond - to the attacks, and whether the right choices have been made. We need to reflect on the way the attacks have reshaped public policy on immigration, security measures that affect our daily lives and commerce, and public perceptions of Muslim people, including those who are fellow U.S. citizens.
Before 9/11, the U.S. was poised to revamp its immigration system in a significant way. The now politically distant dream of comprehensive immigration reform was on the horizon. The plan, preached by Presidents George W. Bush and Vicente Fox of Mexico, held the promise of meeting U.S. labor needs with legal means for low-wage workers to arrive, finally closing many of the doors left open by the amnesty signed into law by Ronald Reagan. A resolution seemed finally within reach for millions of undocumented immigrants, their employers and the communities burdened by so many people living in the shadows of legality.
Instead, a shocked nation learned that 19 hijackers had maneuvered through our immigration system with ease. It was time to clamp down.
The old system of INS was dismantled. The Department of Homeland Security emerged, along with a gargantuan budget. A new report by the Migration Policy Institute notes that Homeland Security spending rose from $19.5 billion to $55.3 billion between 2002 and 2010.
Meanwhile, a patchwork of get-tough legislation was passed at the state and local levels, much of it predicated on the notion that the federal government wasn't doing enough to control flows of dangerous migrants. One of the signal achievements of this legislation has been a raft of expensive litigation wending its way through the courts.
Ironically, the illegal immigration that concerns many - the influx of people from Mexico and Central America - has all but slowed to a trickle. Experts do not believe this has much to do with ramped up border enforcement or measures to make life and employment difficult for migrants. Rather, a relatively resilient economy in Mexico, at a time of severe recession in the U.S., can claim credit.
If 9/11 was a severe shock to Americans' self-image and feeling of security, 10 years on we are still dealing with the collateral damage it did to our national sense of tolerance and liberality.
A vocal minority of Americans continues ostentatiously to demonize the Muslims who live among us, even at the risk of alienating the many among them who could be counted on as allies to help authorities ferret out those who do wish harm.
The outsized backlash that foiled plans for a mosque/community center near Ground Zero is the best-known example. Others are New York Rep. Peter King's circus hearings on homegrown terrorists and the asinine legislative efforts to ban Sharia law in various states and municipalities.
This fever pitch of alarm has helped to keep any real reform of our immigration policies - which have precious little to do with Muslims - off the table. Instead, our government has contented itself with muscular shows of enforcement and punishment, which may create the illusion of "doing something" but which are ultimately a pointless way to deal with millions of undocumented immigrants who came here to fill a needed role in our economy.
Ten years after 9/11, we face a changed world. Osama is dead. Gadhafi is on the run. The regimes in Syria and Iran are anything but stable. Our pressing problems are at home.
Let's close the book on 9/11. Let's do the right thing and find a just and pragmatic solution to our immigration problem. And let's move on.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.