World·Analysis

El Paso officials wary of Trump visit after mass shooting

El Paso City Representative Cassandra Hernandez told CBC News that Donald Trump's planned visit to the city after a deadly mass shooting will only be fruitful if it is accompanied with "meaningful change," including a change in tone from the president himself.

President's criticisms of Mexicans, misstatements of city's crime rate have not gone unnoticed

The U.S. and Mexican flags fly above a makeshift memorial Tuesday for victims outside a Walmart, near the scene of a mass shooting that 22 people dead in El Paso, Texas. U.S. President Donald Trump plans to visit the city on Wednesday. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

El Paso Mayor Dee Margo put his best diplomatic face forward upon learning President Donald Trump will visit Wednesday in the aftermath of the weekend's mass shooting at a busy neighbourhood Walmart.

Margo said he would welcome the U.S. president to the Texas border city — Trump's second visit in six months — as his "formal duty."

Veronica Escobar, the first-term Democratic congresswoman representing Texas's 16th District, including El Paso, has been less conciliatory in the wake of the Aug. 3 shooting, which claimed the lives of 22 people.

A frequent critic of the Trump administration's policies concerning migrants at the southern border, Escobar has said the planned visit illustrates a lack of "self-awareness" on Trump's part, as the community remains in mourning.

Trump will also travel to Dayton, Ohio, where a gunman killed nine people and wounded more than a dozen others at a popular entertainment district early Sunday. The Democratic mayor of that city, Nan Whaley, called Trump's rhetoric around guns "painful for many in our community," adding that she hoped he would use Wednesday's visit to "add value" to the community.

That this president is not being overwhelmingly welcomed in the wake of a tragedy is not without precedent. Last year, Pittsburgh's mayor said he wished Trump would delay a visit after a deadly synagogue shooting there killed 11.

But the general degree of unease with Trump's presence after tragic events stands in stark contrast to his predecessor, Barack Obama, who earned the moniker of consoler-in-chief after well-received speeches after mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., and at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla.

George W. Bush was also praised for offering appropriate solace at the campus of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University after 32 were gunned down there in 2007.

Trump, on the other hand, has often eschewed some of the typically ceremonial duties of the U.S. presidency, combined with a tendency to lob bombs from his Twitter account at a whole host of perceived rivals and enemies.

In recent weeks, Trump has drawn furor for targeting five members of Congress on social media, all persons of colour, particularly for comments that some of them should "go back" to their countries of origin if they weren't satisfied with his administration's performance.

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, seen with fellow Texas Congressman Joacquin Castro in July, has been a frequent critic of Trump's rhetoric and of his administration's immigration policies. (Julio Cesar Chavez/Reuters)

Trump and his administration have weaponized political rhetoric, El Paso City Representative Cassandra Hernandez told CBC News Network Tuesday, saying that the president's visit will only be fruitful if it is accompanied with "meaningful change."

Hernandez describes the anger people in El Paso feel for Trump:

El Paso City Representative Cassandra Hernandez tells CBC News Network under what circumstances U.S. President Donald Trump would be welcomed in the city. 1:02

Escobar, meanwhile, said she was looking for a sense of contrition from the president.

"It would go a long way for the president to say, 'I used racist language, I used words that dehumanized people and I was wrong and I take them back.' Only after he does that should he be welcomed into our community," she told NBC News.

El Paso as a frequent focus

While some have suggested the recent Trump tweets were an attempt to shift the media focus from investigations his administration has faced, an abrupt, softer tone from the president on Wednesday may be a contradiction too far to bridge for some of his critics.

Additionally, Pittsburgh did not have a fraught history with the Trump administration, unlike El Paso — a city of some 800,000, where 83 per cent of the population is Hispanic.

"El Paso's always been sort of kicked in the teeth because it's on the border, it's across from Ciudad Juarez, which is not a safe city in Mexico," Julian Aguilar told CBC's Metro Morning on Tuesday. "El Paso's always had to push back and defend itself."

Julian Aguilar, Immigration and Border Security reporter with the Texas Tribune, says the shootings are surreal, but "why wouldn't it happen here? It happens everywhere else." 9:28

Aguilar, a reporter with the Texas Tribune, said it was "surreal" to have to cover a shooting that occurred two blocks from his high school, at a complex where teens have gathered for years.

"I think that actually complicates things," Aguilar said of Trump's visit. "People here are still digesting how much rhetoric against Hispanics, against immigrants, was a factor in what happened."

Tensions are indeed running high. Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard has said his government considers the El Paso shooting to be an act of terrorism, as eight of the 22 killed held Mexican citizenship. Six Mexicans were also among the many injured.

It is alleged the gunman travelled about 10 hours by car — the equivalent distance of Vancouver to Calgary — to wreak havoc. He has also been accused of writing a so-called manifesto in which terms like "invaders" were used to describe migrants — language that Trump himself has employed.

That language has stung in El Paso, whose economy depends on Mexican factories and the shoppers who frequently cross the border to make purchases in the U.S. Hundreds of students head back to their families in Ciudad Juarez after attending school in the El Paso area, and pesos and dollars are accepted on both sides of the border.

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke, a native of El Paso, and state politician César Blanco are among those who have said they hoped the president would stay away. 

"This is a president who kicked off his presidential campaign calling people of my ethnicity murderers, rapists, people who are invading our country," Blanco told CBC's As It Happens.

"I take offence to those comments as a veteran who served active duty in the military for six years. I consider myself a patriot of this country, just like any other Hispanic or any individual from any other race."

Violent crime stats misstated

El Paso's citizens and politicians were put on notice relatively early into Trump's term that his election didn't just mean a change of party in the White House. During an April 2017 visit, then-attorney general Jeff Sessions described the border at El Paso in terms of a war footing, calling it a "beachhead."

"This is ground zero — this is the front lines, and this is where we take our stand," said Sessions, also making reference to cartels, street gangs and human traffickers.

Over the past two years, El Paso has seen a surge in migrant crossings. With smugglers often dictating the route, Central Americans find they can easily cross the dried-up Rio Grande in El Paso with young children.

With the Trump administration expressing scorn for the practice of releasing asylum seekers ahead of immigration hearings that can be years in the making, hundreds have been housed in a processing centre in the city that even the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general called "an immediate risk to the health and safety not just of the detainees, but also D.H.S. agents and officers" due to overcrowding.

The department says it plans to build an additional processing centre in El Paso.

The city also found its way into Trump's state of the union in February, when he spoke of its "extremely high rates of violent crime" that he suggested were lowered by the construction of a border barrier back in 2008. He soon followed with a visit to the city to whip up support for his own planned wall between the U.S. and Mexico.

In fact, it was reported earlier this year that El Paso saw 23 homicides in 2018 — a total that hadn't been seen in more than 20 years. In contrast, the number of homicides exceeded 50 on four separate occasions between 1980 and 1993, according to FBI Uniform Crime Reporting data.

It's a low rate that seems remarkable given the city's presence across from the often-dangerous Mexican state of Chihuahua, and the fact that U.S. government data estimates that about 80 per cent of illegal drugs come into the country through ports of entry, including at El Paso.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in El Paso, Texas, on Feb. 11, 2019. That visit by the U.S. president earlier this year was aimed at drumming up support for his planned border wall. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Rusty Fleming, a documentarian who has researched Mexican drug cartels, has suggested those facts are not as contradictory as they appear.

"The narcos all live here [in El Paso]. They're not going to fight a war here," he said in the 2014 book The Dangerous Divide: Peril and Promise on the U.S.-Mexico Border by Peter Eichstaedt.

And compassion could seemingly be the order of the day during Trump's visit on Wednesday.

When the president visited Pittsburgh after the Tree of Life shooting last October, Jeffrey Myers, the synagogue's rabbi, told CNN he was "pleasantly surprised by a warm and personal side to the president that I don't think America has ever seen."

Given the contents of Trump's Twitter feed over the many months between the Pittsburgh and these recent tragedies, officials from El Paso are likely hoping this time is different.

This past weekend saw two back-to-back mass shootings in the United States: one in El Paso, Texas, and one in Dayton, Ohio. At least thirty-one people are dead. Dozens more injured. Today on Front Burner, we talk to writer Jennifer Mascia about gun violence and reform in America. She’s a reporter with The Trace, a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to covering gun-related news. 25:49

About the Author

Chris Iorfida

Senior Writer

Chris Iorfida has worked in TV news, radio, print and digital in his journalism career. He has been with CBC since 2002 and written on subjects as diverse as politics, business, health, sports, arts and entertainment, science and technology.

With files from The Associated Press