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In El Paso, a Loving Community Living in Fear

It will take more than a repudiation of racism and white nationalism for El Paso to heal.

Published in: The Nation
A Border Patrol agent looks on near where a border wall ends that separates the cities of Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019, in San Diego.  © 2019 AP Photo

One of the first things Father Arturo Bañuelas, the pastor of El Paso parish, noticed when he arrived at the scene of the shooting at an El Paso Walmart was the number of US Customs and Border Protection agents. More than 100 agents with their white SUVs sporting the Homeland Security logo had responded.

“They were very visibly present,” he said.

Bañuelas had come to comfort the victims and their families. But when he got to a family reunification center, he found some family members of the victims outside, too alarmed by the presence of immigration authorities to go inside to learn whether their loved ones were dead or alive. He offered to get the list of people injured in the attack for them, but when he came back out, they were gone.

Many reports about the attack depicted El Paso as a diverse and loving community terrorized in a sudden, unprecedented way. And indeed, the city’s binational identity is evident from the street art to the billion-dollar trade industry with Mexico. And family ties across the border are commonplace—many of those killed in the shooting had family members in both the United States and Mexico.

But the terror wrought by the Walmart shooter landed on a community where many people already feel targeted by abusive immigration policies, both recent and longstanding. Approximately 83 percent of El Paso–area residents are Latinxs, more than 26 percent of residents are foreign-born, and local immigrant advocates estimate that 60,000 El Paso County residents are undocumented.

On September 6, members of Congress held a field hearing in El Paso on border oversight and the “relationship between anti-immigrant rhetoric and domestic terrorism,” where all six of those who testified addressed abuses against border residents by immigration authorities and the fear those abuses have invoked.

El Paso County attorney Jo Anne Bernal testified that after news spread that immigration authorities entered the El Paso County Courthouse, arresting and detaining her client, an undocumented victim of domestic violence, other undocumented victims of domestic violence immediately began canceling their protective-order hearings, expressing fears that if they stepped into the courthouse, the same could happen to them.

“Within days of the incident being made public, an undocumented mother of three US citizen children who had sought a protective order to protect her from stalking asked to withdraw her protective order because of threats by her former partner to report her to immigration authorities,” Bernal told members of Congress. “Similarly, an undocumented mother who sought protection for her 17-year-old daughter who was the victim of dating violence and stalking asked to withdraw the request for the protective order because of her fear of ICE officials in the courthouse.”

YWCA CEO Alejandra Castillo testified that a single mother of two children diagnosed with breast cancer was so afraid of deportation, she avoided seeking timely medical care and ended up receiving a double mastectomy. Castillo also told members of Congress that Mexican American children attending YWCA El Paso’s after-school and early learning academies expressed fears of going to jail or being killed. Others worried that their parents would be deported.

Needless to say, the Trump administration’s unrelenting attacks on migrants have had a strong impact on El Paso. Customs and Border Protection agents were involved in at least 64 “use of force incidents” in El Paso during fiscal years 2017–18, and El Paso has been ground zero for the administration’s family separation policy and the “Remain in Mexico” program forcing asylum seekers to wait in Mexican border cities for their asylum claims to be adjudicated in the United States.

Yet El Paso has been subjected to the harmful effects of abusive immigration policies and practices along the US-Mexico border long before President Donald Trump took office.

It was the testing ground for the first deterrence policies in the mid-1990s that intentionally pushed migrants into the desert, where thousands have since died. For decades, Customs and Border Patrol agents have inflicted abuse on border residents. In 1992 and 1993, Human Rights Watch documented in El Paso excessive and sometimes deadly use of force, warrantless strip searches, and unwarranted arrests during roving stops and at checkpoints both along the border and surrounding the city, where agents have long had the ability under federal regulations to detain anyone and enter private property without permission. One of the reports notes that “racially discriminatory conduct” by agents is pervasive along the border.

Under the Obama administration, a rule banning racial profiling exempted the Border Patrol, allowing agents to continue stopping anyone who appeared to have “Mexican ancestry,” which could describe the majority of people in El Paso. A Harper’s Magazine investigation covering 2008–16 documented racial profiling in Border Patrol stops, as well as warrantless and invasive searches. In one case, agents conducted a strip search of a woman at the El Paso–Juarez Bridge of the Americas, ultimately sending her to a hospital where she was shackled to a bed and forced to submit to a vaginal and anal inspection after agents found nothing.

Local attorneys have started a project here to identify noncitizen victims of the Walmart massacre and their family members and to help them apply for a special visa protecting crime victims and facilitating cooperation with law enforcement. But the lawyers tell us they face a major hurdle: Many will likely fear the visa application is just another trick to deport them.

It will take more than a repudiation of racism and white nationalism for El Paso to heal. A deep reform of Border Patrol procedures is crucial.

As Congress enters appropriations season, members should work to create a humane and rights-respecting border regime by passing funding bills that require mandatory oversight, increased transparency, and effective accountability systems within the Department of Homeland Security and its component agencies. And Congress should not allocate additional money to immigration enforcement without reforms to stop ongoing abuses that dehumanize Latinxs and other minorities or people of color no matter which side of the border they are from.

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