September 28, 2001

Immigrant Fears — Loss of Safe Haven in America

By Andres Tapia

MEXICO CITY — After graduating from college in the 1980s, terrorist bombings and five-digit inflation kept me from going back to my native Peru. For my American wife and myself, the United States offered a safe haven from political violence and unstable economies. That all changed on September 11.

I was visiting Mexico City at the time of the attacks. Suddenly, that Latin city felt safer than Chicago, where my wife and daughter live, and where the U.S. military anxiously searched the skies for potentially hijacked commercial planes.

For years I had gotten sympathetic but uncomprehending looks from U.S.-born friends as I told them about growing up under a dictatorship in the '70s, or about my fears for my family during the '90s in the wake by the Shining Path in Lima. This time it was the Mexicans who gave me the same bewildered look as we stared at the gruesome images from New York. "No puede ser" — it can't be — they said, shaking their heads.

Then came the call from my American mom, who lives in Peru. For 18 months she had been planning to visit her homeland, to get a respite from Peru's recent years of intense political tumult. "I need a break from this country. I need to be in the States," was her mantra as she prepared her escape-from-reality vacation. Now her trip has been postponed indefinitely.

My many immigrant friends, regardless of whether they come from Latin America, India, or South Africa, are also at a loss. We chose to live in the United States in part for the refuge from political violence it offered. Now, with this illusion shattered and with our home countries still struggling for stability, no place feels safe.

America had seemed to defy what was a natural state for most of the world. It was a comfort even for those who chose not to move here.

This sense of security went to the heart of our middle-class immigrant identities. Family members who remained in Peru always nodded knowingly when I said I lived in Chicago. Or when my sister said she lived in Miami. The nods said that we were the lucky ones. The ones who lived free of shortages of sugar or rice. The ones who lived with the certainty of jobs — and well-paying ones at that. The ones who lived in safe and clean neighborhoods.

We nurtured that identify. We felt we had the best of both worlds. We imported into U.S. cities the exoticness of our foods, music, and cultural traditions, without having to be brought down by the day-to-day grind of life in a developing nation. We Latinos can now get a dozen cable channels in Spanish. I can see my favorite boyhood soccer team play in Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. An Argentinean grocer in Chicago carries our most traditional Christmas sweet bread and our most popular soft drink, Inca Kola.

Sure, this sense of security with freedom was at times disrupted by ice storms, earthquakes, or hurricanes. But comprehensive insurance coverage — hard to come by in our Third World nations — ensured a rapid rebuilding. America's wealth provided the assurance that all would be right in just a little bit.

Even when the bombing in Oklahoma City shook the heartland, we clung to America's sense of security. But when the World Trade Center towers crumbled, fissures cracked open our souls. We immigrants lost in a moment our sense that we had done right to come here.

Now I see in the eyes of native-born Americans that they have no inkling of what it is like to wake up every morning to uncertainty, to feel that each day we are pawns to others' power plays. They seem to have trouble recognizing their loss of confidence and innocence.

For immigrants like myself, this state of emergency in the States feels familiar. When I made my way back from Mexico to Chicago on Greyhound, border guards entered our bus 20 miles outside Laredo, Texas. As they checked every-one's documents and dug through our bags, I was transported back to the checkpoints on Peru's highways leading to Lima, when the terrorists there started car-bombing the capital.

When the e-mails started flying and the talk radio airwaves buzzed with debate on whether to nuke "those" people, I heard echoes of the polarization Fujimori brought to dinner table debates around human rights and "fighting terrorism by any means necessary."

As I hear U.S. government and law enforcement officials calling for stringent security measures that would entail rolling back civil rights, I recall how Peru's Fujimori defeated two guerilla movements through sheer ruthlessness.

So the flags sprout up, "America the Beautiful" is sung, and "God bless America" becomes the new greeting. These symbols of freedom-with-security announce with shaken bravado that the American Dream will still persevere. But the flaming towers were on CNN, not HBO. When Americans — whose identity is rooted in being free to do whatever they please and secure enough to see their plans come to fruition — face the prospect of losing these core elements of who they are, what then does it mean to be American?

In the months and years to come, both native-born and immigrant Americans must answer that question together.

Andres Tapia grew up in Lima, Peru. He writes on immigration and cultural issues.

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