The Breaking Point of El Paso

The city has been slow to respond to the campaign being waged against it. That may finally change.

A woman writes names of the dead on white crosses outside the Walmart.
Members of Crosses for Losses arrive at the Cielo Vista Mall Walmart in El Paso, Texas, on Monday. Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Patrick Crusius, who allegedly murdered 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, could have hit his intended targets while blindfolded. Even if he hadn’t checked his victims’ skin color before aiming his weapon, it was overwhelmingly likely that most victims would be brown. El Paso’s population is 83 percent Latino. The city lies walking distance to Mexico, and people there regularly cross the border to shop (at least seven of the dead reportedly were from Mexico, including one teacher).

The racist in the White House has also played El Paso’s odds. For political gain, President Donald Trump and his appointees over the past two years have exploited the city’s demography to scapegoat, libel, humiliate, torture—and, ultimately, to turn this humble, polite community into a magnet for terrorist violence.

El Paso, a city where protest is tentative at best, and at worst nonexistent, has been slow to respond to the campaign being waged against it. A small community of immigration rights activists will sometimes mount protests, but only a few dozen people attend, and city leaders discourage any acts that could lead to confrontations with law enforcement. Many longtime El Pasoans are not U.S. citizens. They are undocumented, or permanent residents, and getting arrested could lead to deportation. In El Paso, moral and political outrage is often trumped by fear. Fear goes private, morphing to civic indifference.

The first explicit step in Trump’s campaign against El Paso began when the administration tore asylum-seekers from their children. Today, most Americans think these separations began in the spring of 2018. But months earlier, in late 2017, the Department of Homeland Security was already using El Paso as a guinea pig, with a pilot program to separate refugee families. Dozens of parents and children were split up, and though immigration civil rights groups challenged the practice in court, the media and politicians paid little heed to the outrage unfolding in El Paso. The silence emboldened DHS to extend the separations border wide the next year.

By July of last year, public outrage and judges’ rulings had rendered parent and child separation largely a thing of the past. But El Paso was again pushed to a chilling forefront. For years, up and down the border, refugees had crossed international bridges to ports of entry and been admitted into the U.S. to have their asylum claims processed. Then, starting in May 2018, Customs and Border Protection officers blocked migrants on the bridges leading to El Paso, forbidding them from advancing to port-of-entry offices. Soon this practice, known as “metering,” had also spread border wide. In Ciudad Juárez, El Paso’s sister city across the border, each refugee was given a number and told to wait—often for weeks or months—until their number was called. The digits were written on the refugees’ arms, and the images of the arms, evoking Auschwitz, appeared in the media. Was the community in El Paso thinking about its own arms? Protest did not happen.

Soon thereafter, children held in immigration custody in the El Paso area started dying in filthy, overcrowded detention facilities. The deaths made national news, even as the government claimed that its hands were tied because the children were arriving at the border ill, their parents were “trafficking” them, and the flood of immigrants into El Paso was overwhelming the government’s ability to care for them.

These hordes of “criminals, smugglers, gang members, and public safety threats” were bringing disease and chaos to the country by way of El Paso, Kevin McAleenan, then-head of Border Patrol, said at a March press conference in the city. “The breaking point has arrived,” he declared.

He made these claims despite the fact that many more migrants had been apprehended at the Southern border in previous years, yet there had been room and supplies for earlier groups. But no matter: The government’s hateful talk filled right-wing and social media. After the press conference, the agency’s public information officers marched reporters under a bridge. There, the press witnessed hundreds of adults and children jammed together against cyclone fencing and razor wire, pushing, screaming, and pleading.

Days later, El Pasoans walking over a local bridge looked through a fence at parents lying on dirt, rocks, and bird droppings, clutching preschool-age sons and daughters as they trembled under Mylar blankets.

The government seemed shameless about mounting these theatrics of sadism in full public view. It was as though the Trump administration was proud of its ability to torture people in El Paso. In February, the president had exploited this reticence during his State of the Union address. Arguing for funding for a transborder wall, he pointed to fencing built in El Paso a decade earlier and claimed that the city “used to have extremely high rates of violent crime” and was “considered one of our nation’s most dangerous cities.” But, Trump continued, the fencing dividing El Paso and Ciudad Juárez had made El Paso “one of the safest cities in our country.”

Trump was flat out lying. The barrier had not lowered crime rates, which in El Paso have been historically quite low. The homicide rate has for years hovered below 3 per 100,000—about half the U.S. average. No matter: Trump’s false pronouncement sullied the community with the intimation that its Latino residents were violent people.

Weeks after the State of the Union address, armed, masked vigilantes wearing camouflage set up camp near El Paso and began chasing terrified migrants: then stopping, threatening, and mocking them—often as Border Patrol agents looked on impassively. Social media teemed with videos that the vigilantes produced with their cellphones. The videos included endless screeds about “illegal alien” “invasion,” Democratic Party conspiracies to register “illegals” as voters, and dire warnings about the impending decline of America by immigrant takeover. The videos made national news. Again, the publicity intimated that El Paso was rife with Latino-fueled mayhem and evil.

In El Paso, no one protested.

In May, several hard-line anti-immigrant Trump operatives, including Tom Tancredo, Kris Kobach, and Steve Bannon, traveled to the El Paso area to organize the building of a privately financed, crowdfunded border wall. A quarter-mile barrier was quickly erected, lit up at night, and publicized nationally. The politicos spewed more inflammatory rhetoric about immigrants.

In July, Kobach, Bannon, and Tancredo returned to the El Paso area to tout the new wall along with Donald Trump Jr.

No protests ensued.

Also in July, after an organization called BorderResistance.com called for a 10-day action in the fall to protest what it called “concentration camps” in El Paso, conservative media angrily associated the group with “Antifa.” The El Paso Police Department told media that law enforcement was on alert. The specter of arrest was in the air—a frightening thing in El Paso.

Then another group actually arrived in El Paso. The Rev. William Barber, head of the Poor People’s Campaign, brought 400 concerned citizens and members of the national clergy—priests, pastors, rabbis, and imams—to El Paso. They came on Sunday, July 28, to prepare for what Barber called “Moral Monday”—a day of protest against child detention and the Trump administration’s treatment of immigrants in general.

At Moral Monday early on July 29, the clergy packed an El Paso Episcopal church. They sang sacred and political songs, and many donned yellow armbands, signifying their willingness to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience. The idea was to block the operations of a massive Border Patrol administrative and detention facility. For El Paso, the plan was novel and bold. The atmosphere at the church was electric.

Then Barber suddenly mounted the pulpit and ordered everyone to remove the armbands. Civil disobedience was canceled, he said, because local community organizers had “discerned” the potential for something bad to happen. He did not elaborate on what was discerned, and no one publicly questioned the cancellation. El Paso’s mood was already battered, drained, and foreboding enough, without further asking or telling.

Five days later, the Walmart shooting happened. Trump is reportedly planning to visit El Paso on Wednesday. In response, El Paso’s Rep. Veronica Escobar said that the president “is not welcome here.” If he comes anyway, protest may finally follow.