“When the United States sneezes, Mexico catches a cold” is the oft-cited phrase to capture the relationship of economic interdependence between the two countries. When the United States and its people are profoundly shaken by an unprecedented terrorist attack, there is perhaps no phrase to adequately capture the magnitude by which global policy trends are subsequently affected. With regard to our Southern neighbors and immigration policy over the past 10 years, it has been politicians’ ubiquitous use of a national security lens that has had the most far-reaching and contagious effects within the region. Unfortunately, the implications and replications of this lens by policy-makers in the United States and Mexico have led to failed policy at home and a humanitarian crisis abroad.

Most U.S. citizens would be surprised to know that crossing our border with Mexico – guarded by a technologically powerful border fence, unmanned drones and increased Border Patrol “boots on the ground” since 2001 – is practically a walk in the park for undocumented migrants after they traverse the myriad obstacles awaiting them in Mexico. Facing the same “undocumented” status and even harsher interior controls than those in the United States, Central American migrants entering Mexico become vulnerable to the whims of organized crime as well as local and national Mexican authorities. A laundry list of abuses, including assault, rape, extortion, kidnapping and death, are the trial by fire for undocumented immigrants before reaching the “American Dream” awaiting at the next border.

The Mexican government’s adoption of a national security focus regarding immigration policy is no coincidence. Parallel to bilateral diplomatic negotiations on comprehensive immigration reform during the summer of 2001, Mexico began the implementation of Plan Sur, a program essentially aimed at appeasing the United States by replicating policies that would help reduce the flow of migrants from Central and South America. We’ll never know if these policies would have continued had reforms passed that year. But, we do know that 9/11 sparked an unprecedented intensification of border control initiatives in the United States, as well as a public debate notable for its anti-immigrant and xenophobic discourse. Following the sneeze to cold scenario, the situation for migrants in transit through Mexico became disproportionately worse.

Widespread impunity for abuses against migrants in combination with the tacit complicity of Mexican immigration authorities led the Salvadoran media to describe the situation for Central American migrants in Mexico as a “humanitarian crisis.” With legal migration options available only to a privileged minority, Central Americans facing continued poverty and growing insecurity in their home countries have chosen to continue migrating despite the dangers. Even migrants who were kidnapped and extorted at the hands of organized crime and corrupt authorities on their first trip are willing to set out again, to navigate as many times as necessary the manifestations of national security policies in order to make it north.

The short-sighted national security focus of U.S. immigration policy after 9/11 is also indirectly responsible for and complicit with these atrocities. Our increased militarization of the border creates only a false sense of security at home, with very real security implications for those outside our borders. If anything, 9/11 should have taught us to take seriously the impacts – unintended or not – of our policies abroad. The externalization of human rights abuses does not make them any less our responsibility.

It is time to separate our need to secure our borders from terrorist attacks from the political debate about undocumented immigrants and their role in U.S. society. It is time to recognize that putting a national security lens on immigration policy will always obscure the fact that human beings are willing to risk everything – including their own lives – for the sake of providing for their loved ones. The real lesson from 9/11 should be that vulnerability, exclusion and marginalization are a recipe for disaster. Rather than infect the rest of the region with failed policies, it is time to take off our blinders, infuse an essential degree of humanity into our reforms and create an immigration system that is healthy for all sides of the border.