Metro Latino community cites concerns over anti-immigration rhetoric

A woman places flowers on Sunday, August 4, 2019, beside a makeshift memorial outside the Cielo Vista Mall Wal-Mart (background), where a shooting left 20 people dead in El Paso, Texas. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

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A woman places flowers on Sunday, August 4, 2019, beside a makeshift memorial outside the Cielo Vista Mall Wal-Mart (background), where a shooting left 20 people dead in El Paso, Texas. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

Leaders in metro Atlanta’s Latino and immigrant communities on Sunday said they believe rhetoric around the immigration debate could have played a role in the weekend killing of 20 people in El Paso, Texas.

Federal authorities said they were treating the mass shooting as a domestic terrorism case and were also weighing hate-crime charges.

Metro residents said messages — some of which are coming from leading politicians that immigration has gotten out of control and that those coming to the United States are bad actors with nefarious motives — has given those who hate permission to take matters into their own hands.

“We have seen in the last two-and-a-half years the pressure mounting on the Latino community and also the fear,” said Belisa Urbina, founder and executive director of Ser Familia, a group dedicated to strengthening Latino families and youth. “The things that people say now would be something they would have never dared to in the past. They may have thought about it, but they would never say it to your face.”

Officials said a man opened fire at an El Paso Walmart on Saturday while shoppers were picking up back-to-school supplies, killing 20 people and wounding more than two dozen others. Patrick Crusius, 21, surrendered to police. A political manifesto appeared online before the attack, and authorities were still trying to determine whether it’s connected to Crusius and his actions.

A separate shooting hours later in a downtown Dayton, Ohio, entertainment district left nine dead and 27 others injured. As of Sunday, that shooting was not being considered a hate crime. Connor Betts, 24, who was identified as the gunman in Ohio, was shot and killed by police.

Many of those reacting to the El Paso mass shooting said they were speaking as individuals and not necessarily for their organization because they had not had a chance to consult on official positions with colleagues. However, they cited the political tenor of Washington as helping to create the atmosphere for the shooting.

El Paso County, which is on the border near Mexico, is more than 80 percent Latino, according to the latest census data.

“We see now that the rhetoric that has been spouted by the president and, unfortunately, allowed by the Republicans has yielded a homegrown terrorist,” said Brian Nunez, a Henry County small business owner originally from the Dominican Republic.

Michelle Sanchez agreed. She said President Donald Trump’s rallies have stoked division and made immigrants “the other.”

"Now that we are seeing this playing out, people want to pretend that it's not a hate crime or ask, 'Where is this coming from or why is this happening?' " said Sanchez, Latinx outreach coordinator for the New Georgia Project. "Anybody who is still questioning it simply doesn't want to see things for what they are."

Maria Palacios, a Mexican-American immigrant and mother of three, said she has shopped at El Paso area Walmart stores when visiting family in Mexico in the past, so the shooting was more than a news story of something happening thousands of miles away.

“It definitely hit close to home,” she said. “To think that the shooter had a (reported possible) manifesto of hate, it’s very heartbreaking to think of it all.”

For many in the Latino community, the shooting also will intensify anxiety that some of their fellow Americans are potentially a threat, said activist Anthony Pacheco.

“It creates another subset of fears,” he said. “We are fearful of police, we are fearful of ICE raids that happen in the Southeast and in Atlanta. This adds another layer to that.”

Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director for Project South, which promotes social activism to effect change, said she was devastated by the shooting, but not surprised. Acts of violence have coincided with the rise in white nationalist and white supremacist sentiment.

“It has to be stopped,” she said. “Its really the leaders of this country that have to step in and put a stop to it before we see more tragedies like this unfold.”

Harvey Soto, policy analyst with the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said he felt encouraged that the federal government was investigating the incident as a potential hate crime.

“(The alleged shooter’s) words are out there and they should be adjudicated correctly,” he said.