The violent attack yesterday in El Paso in which 22 people lost their lives and more than 24 others were injured evokes two starkly divergent views of El Paso, the first held by most of its residents and those who know it well, and the second championed by extremist politicians, media sources, and hate groups. The latter describe El Paso and other border communities as dangerous and crime-ridden places, victimized by “invaders” from undesirable countries.
Just five days ago, Beto O’Rourke outlined a different vision of this community, writing in The Hill that that El Paso might (instead) be considered the nation’s future Ellis Island; that is, a symbol of hope for the world. The Ellis Island language may have come from a 2012 gathering in El Paso of border residents (most from El Paso) from different sectors – public officials, law enforcement, faith communities, business people, the press, and others – who were offended by how their communities had been characterized in the national immigration debate and wanted to articulate a richer, more truthful narrative of their communities. “If nothing else,” they later wrote presciently, “we could all agree on this point. There is a prevailing narrative about the US border and it is false and it is dangerous to border communities.”
These border residents recognized the problems in their communities, some of which they attributed to ill-considered federal immigration enforcement policies and the vilification of immigrants. El Pasoans have generously welcomed newcomers throughout their history, particularly in recent months. In a report published by the Border Network for Human Rights titled “The New Ellis Island: Visions from the Border for the Future of America,” they described El Paso as a safe, family-oriented, creative and culturally rich community that benefitted from its diversity and bi-national identity, and that could serve as a model for other American communities in an increasingly inter-connected world.
As Professor Josiah Heyman of the University of Texas in El Paso later wrote in the Journal on Migration and Human Security:
These border residents viewed their region as a set of human communities with rights, capacities, and valuable insights and knowledge … They saw the border region as the key transportation and brokerage zone of the emerging, integrated North American economy. In their view, the bilingual, bicultural, and binational skills that characterize border residents form part of a wider border culture that embraces diversity and engenders creativity. Under this vision the border region is not an empty enforcement zone, but is part of the national community and its residents should enjoy the same constitutional and human rights as other US residents.
They also enunciated a prophetic view of their communities:
We imagine a border that is no longer characterized by walls, migrant deaths, illegality, human and drug trafficking, and violence in all of its forms. We see a place of opportunity and encounter. We see a place of pilgrimage where – like Ellis Island – residents and visitors can remember their family histories of crossing over, living as “strangers,” and struggling for a foothold in their new country. We imagine a region which, 50 years from today, serves as a symbol of hope for border communities throughout the world. We picture a border that crosses, but does not divide families and communities. We see a border of faith communities converted by their own core values and beliefs. We envision a gathering place for God’s scattered children, where residents and visitors in all their diversity can work together to build the human family. We hope, pray, and vow to work for such a border.
Yesterday’s hate crime attacked this community, its perpetrator reportedly angered by the “Hispanic invasion of Texas” and seeking to prevent “cultural and ethnic replacement” in a region settled by Spanish speaking persons in the mid-17th century and by native peoples in 40 AD. In a statement on the shootings, Bishop Mark J. Seitz of the Diocese of El Paso wrote:
Once again in our nation we see the face of evil. We see the effects of a mind possessed by hatred. We see the effects of the sinful and insipid conviction that some of us are better than others of us because of race, religion, language or nationality.
Bishop Seitz also lauded the borderlands for demonstrating to “the world that generosity, compassion and human dignity are more powerful than the forces of division.”
In announcing a faith vigil last night in response to the shooting, an inter-faith alliance wrote:
Today we stand in horror and shock at the devastating loss of life and heartless attack on our border community. Tomorrow we will mourn, dry tears, offer our sacrifice of prayer and brace ourselves for the work ahead. Because even now the borderlands will stick together and the borderlands will stand together.
As many have remarked, El Paso is a resilient and special American community, but has too long been the victim of hateful and dangerous rhetoric. Its residents deserve the nation’s solidarity and respect, particularly at this sad time.
August 5, 2019