Muslim Americans have lived quietly on U.S. border for decades
CALEXICO, Calif. – If you stumble into El Vaquero Western Wear, you're likely to find American and Mexican ranchers haggling with the manager over the deepest discount they can get on Stetson hats, cattlemen shirts and a gleaming row of black and brown cowboy boots.
Squeezed near the Wal-Mart Supercenter, El Vaquero smells of shoe leather and denim. The man at the register bounces machine gun-fast between Spanish, English and — when family stops by — Arabic.
Talab Rashid, 30, husband and father of two, was born in the United States, raised in Palestine, and now sells cowboy clothes to Mexicans.
“I feel American. I feel Palestinian. I feel Mexican,” joked Rashid with a grin that seems nearly as wide as the Yuha Desert spreading east and west around the town.
“Ha! They call me ‘The Mexican!' They say I'm more Mexican than a Mexican.”
While some fret about Islamist terrorists crossing the border to attack the United States, more than a quarter-million Americans of Muslim faith already live quietly along the U.S. border — including about 150 here in the agriculturally rich Imperial Valley.
Many of their communities were established in the borderlands generations ago; they don't like the demonization of their religion.
Media coverage of the May 3 armed assault on a cartoon exhibit of the Prophet Muhammad in Garland, Texas, refocused attention on Muslim Americans and the potential threat of “lone wolf” terrorists radicalized online. In an exchange of gunfire, police killed Elton Simpson, 30, and Nadir Soofi, 34, who drove to Texas from Phoenix, apparently to revenge what they felt was the desecration of a holy figure.
Rashid said that he and others in Calexico talk about illegal immigration and terrorism, but also about a wide range of other things, like the schools their children attend, healthcare and city planning, the lack of affordable housing and the inevitable battles over water rights for irrigation — all without resorting to stereotypes about Muslims.
Americans concerned about Muslims on the border “are looking at a picture, a stereotype. Noisy words trapped in their minds. We're all the same,” said Rashid as a group of American cowboys nodded in agreement.
“Islam teaches us morality, ethics, how to care for your mind and body. Islam is part of America. We're Americans. I get along with everyone because of Islam,” he said.
During a two-month, 1,933-mile journey along the U.S.-Mexico border from east Texas to Southern California, a Tribune-Review investigations reporter and photographer passed 151 mosques and a population of Muslim Americans estimated at more than 236,000 people, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives that's housed at Pennsylvania State University.
Muslims constitute the seventh largest religious group along the border, far behind the 5.8 million Catholics, 3.6 million Evangelical Protestants and 660,000 Mormons, but nearly double the number of Presbyterians or Episcopalians.
About 150 Muslims live in the agriculturally rich Imperial Valley – about one of every 1,000 citizens – and an Islamic center is in nearby El Centro.
Border Patrol agents, Rashid said, do “a great job” and “keep us safe.” But he said Congress should consider expanding the number of temporary work visas for Mexican workers who want to reside lawfully in the United States.
Analyzing the 3,254 American coyotes convicted in federal courts in 2013 and 2014 for transporting or harboring undocumented immigrants in the borderlands, a Trib special investigation found only three smugglers of Arab descent using the federal government's reporting codes on court cases. They involved an American and a Jordanian caught trying to bring Middle Eastern relatives through a Texas port of entry, and an Iraqi refugee here legally got nabbed driving two Mexicans in Arizona.
In late 2012, federal officials reported that a drug informer helped them to unravel an Iranian plot to pay Los Zetas, a Mexican cartel, to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States.
Supporters of violent Islamist groups have talked on social media about using the border to enter the United States.
In public statements and during testimony before Congress, Homeland Security officials insisted no credible evidence exists that the Islamic State, al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups have tried to enter from Mexico.
Those officials say they're more worried about terrorists infiltrating through airports using valid visas, or homegrown militants radicalized over the Internet.
Homeland Security's most recent statistical yearbook showed that, in 2013, the agency arrested 4,375 people nationwide from 35 “special-interest countries” — from Afghanistan and Iraq to the Philippines — who came here illegally. In the same year, the United States granted lawful permanent residency to 113,821 people from those nations, many of them refugees.
The lack of terrorists netted along the border hasn't stopped Republicans and Democrats from using the issue to rally support.
During February's battle over Homeland Security funding, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee used robo-calls to warn that “known terrorists are trying to sneak across the border.” The group later said it was echoing the concerns of GOP presidential hopeful and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who, like other candidates, continues to stoke concerns over the issue.
Muslims along the border said Washington demagoguery about wars in the Middle East, fears of new terror attacks and an ongoing debate over U.S. immigration policies have mixed together, producing stereotypes about Muslim Americans.
“I try to give people some context so that their misconceptions about us don't spin out of control,” said Sheikh Mustafa Umar, 33, director of education and outreach at California's Islamic Institute of Orange County.
Born and raised in Orange County, Umar said Muslim families live on both sides of the border. His father runs a shop that sells Mexican groceries. Two of Umar's books on Islam have been translated into Spanish, and the institute makes regular visits to Tijuana to drop off religious materials.
“I think that if people came down to the border and met the Muslims there,” Umar said, “they would see ... we're Americans.”