The parking lot behind the El Paso Walmart where a shooter methodically murdered 23 people and wounded dozens of others offers one of the best vistas in the city. In the foreground, you take in Ascarate Park, a county-owned greenspace with a man-made lake and once the home of the Western Playland amusement park—a magical place that I visited as often as I could when I grew up here. Farther west is historic Evergreen Cemetery where at least one former Mexican president is buried just a few plots away from my grandparents’ burial site. Beyond, making up a distant horizon, you have the Mexican city of Juárez, with its dense grid of neighborhoods rising from the river valley up into the mountains. From this vantage point it’s clear that the valley spanning two nations is really one contiguous community.
Growing up in El Paso, I spent a lot of time shopping at Cielo Vista Mall, where the Walmart is located. I always marveled at the view—particularly at night, when streetlights from what is called the Border Highway trace the line of demarcation between the United States and Mexico. The Rio Grande, just beyond the highway, ebbs to a trickle through a concrete channel that fulfills the terms of the Chamizal treaty and addresses the tendency of rivers to shift.
The shooter chose to drive 650 miles from his home in the Dallas suburb of Allen to attack this binational, bicultural, history-steeped place that I love. In a hate-filled manifesto purportedly penned by the shooter, he explains who he was targeting—and why. “This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas,” it begins, with a chilling ignorance of the irony of such a declaration.
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While the manifesto says nothing specific about El Paso, this predominantly Hispanic city of nearly 700,000 people on the farthest edge of West Texas has become ground zero in our country’s ongoing immigration debate. President Trump visited the city in February to bolster his case for a border wall (and still owes it more than $500,000 for security costs incurred during the political event). El Chuco, as some locals call their home in deference to a Chicano counterculture movement that preceded the hippie movement by twenty years, has also become his administration’s petri dish for new and often failed immigration initiatives, such as family separations; metering ports of entries to limit the number of daily asylum applicants; and the Migrant Protection Protocols that force asylum seekers to stay in Mexico until their cases are adjudicated.
“I think El Paso has emerged as a symbol because this is a place where immigrants come to seek refuge, very much like New York City during the days the Italians and the Poles and the Irish came to this country for refuge,” state representative César Blanco, D–El Paso, told me hours after Saturday’s mass shooting. “I think El Paso has become that symbol. It is the new Ellis Island.”
While many El Pasoans would take pride in that label, the alleged shooter, Patrick Crusius, appears to have viewed the huddled masses yearning to breathe free as a threat. “I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement,” says the manifesto. If law enforcement verifies that these are indeed Crusius’s words, Saturday’s incident becomes especially distressing for white supremacists because El Paso is more in line with how many more communities are expected to look across the country. The United States is projected to be majority minority by 2045; El Paso is already a microcosm of what much of the rest of this country will one day look like.
While my hometown has always been predominantly Hispanic, the idea that hordes of newly minted Hispanic Americans are overrunning the border just isn’t true. Large numbers of Central American asylum seekers are coming to this city. But their numbers pale in comparison with the massive numbers of economic migrants that once flooded in from Mexico. El Pasoans have grown accustomed to hearing misinformation about the dangers of migrants, a xenophobic message that always seems to come from distant places—TV networks in New York and politicians in Washington, D.C., or Austin. No one is more responsible for spreading fear of migrants than President Trump. In his State of the Union speech, he claimed that El Paso was once “considered one of our nation’s most dangerous cities” until a border wall was built. In fact, El Paso has been a safe city, long before modest fencing was erected after the original border fence act was enacted during the George W. Bush administration in 2006. Despite the bloodshed in neighboring Juárez that erupted in the mid-aughts, the city has been largely untouched by the violence of the drug cartels; instead, it was an American from hundreds of miles away who brought horrific violence to this city.
Along with the usual debates in the wake of mass shootings in America—gun control, mental health policies, and video games!—what happened in El Paso forces our country to confront the ways in which we discuss immigration, particularly the xenophobic rhetoric that sometimes frames this debate and might motivate people like Saturday’s gunman.
Perhaps most disconcerting is that, like the writer of the manifesto, Trump himself has used the term “invasion” in discussing immigration. “We are talking about an invasion of our country,” he said during a February Rose Garden speech in which he declared a national emergency so that he could divert Department of Defense funding to build a border wall.
When asked whether Trump’s rhetoric contributed to the violence, Beto O’Rourke, who flew home to El Paso after the attack, had a blunt response: “We need to ask ourselves about the level of hatred and racism that’s in our country today. We’ve had a rise in hate crimes every single one of the last three years. [Trump] has tried to make us afraid of them. He is a racist, and he stokes racism in this country.”
Remarks like O’Rourke’s strident comments have become more commonplace in El Paso since Saturday. His successor in Congress, Veronica Escobar, told Trump that he is not welcome in El Paso. “The president has made my community and my people the enemy,” she said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Monday. On Saturday, at a press conference, Escobar said El Paso offered a contrast to hateful rhetoric and actions.
“[Crusius] is someone who came from outside our community to do us harm, a community that has done nothing but shown generosity and kindness to the least among us—those people arriving at America’s front door,” said Escobar.
It’s this treatment of immigrants that may be the defining legacy of the tragedy in El Paso—the fact that this majority Latino city has the gall to treat migrants with a sense of decency. El Pasoans have always been a kind people with a strong sense of humility, but the gunman fundamentally misunderstands the character of El Paso: it is a place confident in its identity and rich in history—and strong enough to stand up for itself.
What the rest of the country will see in the days to come is a city of resilience, a city of compassion, a city of honesty, and a city ready to take on the stereotypes that hateful rhetoric has bestowed on it because of its proximity to a foreign land. El Paso will emerge in this national dialogue as a symbol of strength because El Pasoans, above everything else, are Americans too.