EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — A number of El Pasoans on Friday had a chance to tell a Congressional panel how concerned they are about hate and violence toward migrants and why they want some federal agencies held to closer scrutiny.
The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship held a field hearing at the University of Texas at El Paso, focusing on the link between anti-immigrant rhetoric and domestic terrorism. The hearing came just over one month after a deadly mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart in which authorities say the suspected gunman targeted Mexicans.
Subcommittee member U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), said Republicans were invited to the hearing but did not attend. “We are not going to stop an important discussion just because there are folks who don’t want us to have that discussion so we are moving ahead,” Escobar told KTSM.
Escobar has said she blames President Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric for inspiring the attack. The El Paso congresswoman also has been critical of Trump’s decision to divert $3.6 billion in military spending from the Pentagon to fund his campaign promise of building a border wall.
Some local Republicans weren’t too enthusiastic about the hearing. “I’m extremely disappointed with Veronica Escobar. I think she spends more time representing illegal aliens than she does her constituents here in El Paso,” said Adolpho Telles, chairman of the Republican Party of El Paso County.
“I’m glad they have oversight; that’s a good thing. What I’m bothered with is they’re focusing on the rhetoric of the President and not on, for example, Veronica’s rhetoric,” Telles said. “She spews more poison and more hate than most people. She is causing divisiveness among Hispanics by what she’s doing, and that needs to be addressed not just Trump. Her goal is to attack the president instead of addressing the true issue that’s on the border.”
Telles said a border fence is critical to our nation’s security.
In their written testimony and public comments, witnesses hammered on the politics of race they say are fueling violence and rejection against migrants and people of color.
“The hatred that motivated the shooter did not start that day,” stated El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal. “There has been a confluence of factors that precipitated the hostility we saw in our community. Underlying all these factors is the repeated speech directed at Latinos in this country.”
She said there has been a pattern of conduct on the part of state and federal officials that has fueled the violence. Some of that rhetoric carried over from the divisive 2016 presidential election campaign, she noted.
“Trump’s declaration that Mexico was sending ‘criminals, rapists and drug smugglers’ to the United States and his constant barrage about the need for the border wall have promoted hateful ideas designed to make Americans fear and despise immigrants,” Bernal said.
She added that such rhetoric “dehumanizes brown people” and that hardline immigration policies such as separating migrant children from their parents and detaining them in “inhumane conditions” are a reflection of anti-immigrant attitudes. “The common thread is that brown people, Mexicans, Central Americans are bad and are to be feared, hated and caged and sent back to where they came from,” she added.
“Where communities are traumatized by the racist rhetoric and violence of domestic terrorism, community healing is imperative,” said Alejandra Y. Castillo, chief executive officer of YWCA USA.
She testified that the circumstances that have led to hate, discrimination and mass shootings is the “cumulative effect of many actors and many actions.” A solution, she added, must include standing against racism, an end to gender-based violence, protection of migrant women and children, funding for trauma care and restrictions on gun sales.
“The Trump administration’s immigration policies have a clear end-game: keep immigrants of color out of the United States by violating constitutional and human rights and basic decency. President Trump has advanced this agenda through inhumane and often illegal border policies,” said Shaw Drake, policy counsel for the Border Rights Center of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas (ACLU).
He said border communities such as El Paso have “borne the brunt of this cruelty-first approach” and are looking to Congress for oversight of the Department of Homeland Security and agencies such as Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Drake called for Congress to shift immigration policy away from deterrence and enforcement-only to a one that ensures due process and accountability. He also referred to a “culture of abuse” inside immigration enforcement agencies, citing a private Facebook group in which CBP agents allegedly posted racist and sexual comments, and spoke against making asylum seekers wait in Mexico through the Migrant Protection Protocol program.
“What MPP does is expose people to ongoing persecution in Mexico, subjects them to a heightened risk of violence. There is not enough shelter, the Mexican government cannot protect them and migrants are targeted for crime,” Drake said, adding that the Trump administration has basically enabled organized crime to prey on the asylum seekers. He called for more accountability and oversight of immigration enforcement agencies.
Some of the speakers expressed hope that Friday’s hearing will be more than a chance to vent.
“Today’s hearing is an exercise on how democracy should look. Government must step out of its comfort zone to speak directly to our communities so impacted by policies and strategies discussed and approved in Washington but implemented at the border,” commented Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, who also testified at Friday’s hearing.
He said the U.S. government and the American people need to decide if this should be a country that puts entire families in detention or embraces its legacy as a nation of immigrants.
Shelby Kapp of KTSM contributed to this report.