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El Paso Has Exposed the Ugly Reality of the “Immigration Debate”

It's not about immigration. It's about race.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

In the summer of 2016 while covering Trump’s so-called illegal immigration speech in Phoenix, I spoke to an older woman in a wheelchair from Chicago. She told me in an even tone that Hispanics and immigrants come to the country to get on welfare. They want “freebies.” My expression didn’t change—what she was saying wasn’t surprising given the topic of the day—but I continued to look her in the eye when she added a qualifier: “Well not you, of course.”

The immigration narrative in this country has traditionally distinguished between people in the country illegally (bad) and people of the same ethnicity or background who immigrate legally or were born here (good). But one consequence of the heinous, racist, cowardly shooting targeting Mexicans and immigrants in the majority-Hispanic border town of El Paso Saturday is how it burst the bubble anyone may still be trying to live in—that this isn’t ultimately about white supremacists doing what it takes, including brutal violence, to stop the country from changing.

Fact-checking the warped musings of a deranged, white supremacist killer has lots of drawbacks. But you couldn’t help but notice that off the bat the manifesto authorities linked to the killer referenced “the Hispanic invasion of Texas” and the loss of his idyllic white Texas, bizarre claims given that Texas was Mexico until 1836 and El Paso was part of Mexico until 1848. Hard-hitting intellectualism this is not.

Far more troubling is how closely the language used by the murderer echoes Trump administration messaging. Trump called immigration along the southern border an “invasion” six times in seven months: once in November and December each, and twice in January and again in June, all before telling four congresswomen of color to go back to where they came from. At a rally in May, Trump asked, “How do you stop these people?” A follower in the crowd responded, “shoot them.” Trump laughed and pointed.

This rhetoric is tied to actions and consequences of Trump’s abuse-prone zero-tolerance immigration policy, which have included U.S. citizens detained for weeks, six migrant children dead since September, and increased denaturalization investigations by Homeland Security. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials allowed reporters to photograph caged immigrants in desperate conditions under a bridge in El Paso in March, a spectacle one reporter in attendance told me seemed to be an effort by the Trump administration to push the narrative that the national emergency declaration of the previous month was warranted, by depicting El Paso negatively.

It’s no surprise, then, that Latino elected officials, activists, and leaders grappling with what happened Saturday say it was a natural progression of the rhetoric and actions of the administration and exposed the staggering scale of racism the Latino and immigrant community has been facing all along.

“If you look at the shooter’s language and the president’s language they were very similar, and the president has inspired hate and violence, especially against immigrants and Hispanic Americans,” Representative Joaquin Castro, chair of the Hispanic Caucus, told me. “My fear is what the shooter says in his manifesto is true—that this is just the beginning because of the president’s rhetoric that he engages in regularly.”

The League of United Latin American Citizens released an unambiguous statement, declaring “President Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric and policies inspired the killing of innocent women, children, and men.”

Julissa Arce, a formerly undocumented author who grew up in San Antonio, once confronted former Trump strategist Steve Bannon, asking him if he was knowingly lying to people when he scapegoated immigrants and said they were taking jobs and were responsible for American economic decline. After the shooting she found herself thinking about what it means to be a U.S. citizen in the age of Trump. August 8 will mark five years as a citizen for her, and 25 years since she came from Mexico. “I thought that as soon as I got my citizenship, all these fears that I had would go away, now that I had a U.S. passport,” she said, choking up. “I have a right to be here now, and despite that, I have never felt more alien than I feel in this place right now.”

Cristela Alonzo, an activist and popular comedian, from McAllen, Texas sometimes has shows in El Paso. When she’s there, she goes to the Walmart that was targeted; it feels like the one she went to growing up. In the wake of the shooting she’s recalling other moments of racism in the past few years.

Two weeks after Trump’s election, after shooting her Netflix comedy special, she took her whole family on their first vacation, to Hawaii. Her special-needs nephew loves chain restaurants. As they waited for a table at The Cheesecake Factory, she and her brother, who had just become a citizen, initially thought nothing of it when two white men asked them where they were from. They weren’t happy with the answer “Texas” and kept pushing, eventually telling them to go back to Mexico. Mistaking her nephew’s Nintendo DS for a phone recording the encounter, the men tried to go towards him. Alonzo and her brother put themselves in front of the boy. Despite the talk post-election from white people that they were going to wear pins and be loud allies for marginalized Americans, Alonzo told me, no one in the restaurant said anything.

“The rest of the night my nephew kept asking what he had done wrong. They feel empowered,” Alonzo said of the two white men. “As a Latina, as someone who grew up with undocumented parents, I have never felt like someone has tried to empower me.”

Mario Carillo, the Texas state director for progressive immigration advocacy organization America’s Voice, grew up in El Paso, going to the mall where the shooting took place every Friday for lunch during high school. He called his parents, who shop at the Walmart that was targeted, and his sister immediately upon hearing of the shooting. He thought about how someone drove ten hours to harm a community that has always felt safe, despite its proximity to Juarez. He thought about Trump’s America, where you can get berated for speaking Spanish in public places, and the challenge of trying to get people to see this American crisis through a nonextremist lens. And he thought about Texas governor Greg Abbott, who blamed the El Paso shooting on “mental health” in a television appearance, despite Texas Senator John Cornyn having tweeted about the influx of Hispanic residents in Texas in June, and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick calling undocumented immigrants “invaders” bringing “third-world diseases” to Texas.

“How does government keep American Latinos safe?” he asked. “It’s a question Republicans will have to help answer. Why can’t we have a conversation about how easy it is to obtain firearms?”

Latino leaders I spoke with weren’t yet ready to outline the blueprint for what’s next, still reeling and needing more time to process the tragedy. But more than 700 miles away from El Paso, early answers were beginning to form in San Diego at the national conference of the country’s largest Latino civil rights organization, UnidosUS, formerly known as the National Council of La Raza.

During a Latinas brunch this weekend, immigration activist and co-founder of the Women’s March, Paola Mendoza, took the stage with a fiery speech. Mendoza, who told the human stories of the migrant caravan Trump demonized during multiple visits, said the next steps are hard conversations with moms, dads, abuelos, and tias—the 29 percent of Latinos that voted for Trump, including 32 percent of Hispanic men, a figure which remains consistent with previous Republican performances with Latinos and party identification despite Trump’s historic antagonism.

“A vote for him is a vote against us because his language is dehumanizing us and leading white supremacists to kill us,” she told me after her speech. “If they don’t change and he wins in 2020 I fear what will happen to us as a community. This is a life and death moment.”

The activists and Latino leaders remain resolute that those who lost their lives will not be forgotten and change will arise from tragedy. On Instagram, Arce channeled many of their feelings.

“The shooter didn’t ask people to see their papers, or if they did it the ‘right way,’ or if they came here legally,” she wrote, posting that many Latino families in Texas never crossed the border. “This has never been about legality, it has always been about race. It has always been about our brown skin in this country.”