The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Even before the El Paso mass shooting, Latinos said Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric made them feel unsafe

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Juana Teixeira was uneasy when her teenage son set out for a cross-country trip with his marching band, especially in the climate that has been created by President Trump’s constant anti-immigrant rhetoric.

She took no comfort when she learned that a bandmate had given her son, Joey, a MAGA hat that Joey quipped he would wear “for protection.”

“I worried about my son, a young Latino male, being outside of El Paso,” a majority Latino city where he doesn’t stand out, Teixeira said. “I was worried that he was this dark kid and he would have to confront racism.”

Then, this month, a man traveled hundreds of miles from his home in Allen, Tex., to El Paso and is charged with killing 22 people at a Walmart not far from where the Teixeiras live. The suspect, Patrick Crusius, told officers he was looking to kill “Mexicans,” police said.

Listen on Post Reports: Many Latinos said President Trump’s rhetoric on immigration made them feel unsafe. Then the El Paso shooting happened.

“What I feared for my son happened here at home,” Teixeira said. “It’s been very stressful and upsetting. … We’re angry, but we’re also scared and worried for our children. We feel vulnerable.”

When Joey heard about the shooting, his heart dropped. “It was upsetting that someone came from another city and targeted Hispanics,” he said.

“But I still feel safe,” he added. He said that he got along well with his bandmates during the trip last year and never had trouble. The hat incident was just a bad joke, he said.

The Teixeira family’s reaction before and after the shooting reflects the debate over the impact of Trump’s presidency on the images and realities of being Latino in America. From the moment presidential candidate Donald Trump announced his campaign with warnings about some Mexican immigrants “bringing drugs” into the country and being “rapists,” Latinos have been worried about how such characterizations would affect them as one of the nation’s fastest-growing populations.

A Pew Research Center study this year found that 58 percent of Hispanic adults say they’ve experienced discrimination or have been treated unfairly because of their race or ethnicity. Across racial and ethnic groups, about two-thirds said that it has become more common for people to express racist views since Trump became president. Researchers say victims of racism experience negative health outcomes. Studies have linked Trump’s rise to an increase in premature births among Latinas, and others have tied it to increased anxiety and depression in the general Latinx population.

Those anxieties were realized in the El Paso shooting. For some Latinos who’ve been dealing with racial turmoil in the age of Trump, violence was always the horrifying logical progression.

“I don’t think you could ever imagine something like this happening,” said Mario Carrillo of Austin. “But I feel like you’d be hard-pressed to say it’s surprising, given the rhetoric.”

Carrillo recalls a rally three months ago when Trump asked the audience how they would stop migrants: “How do you stop these people?” Someone yelled back, “Shoot them.” A video of the rally showed Trump smirking.

“He didn’t condemn it then, and that’s something that should be so easy for a president to do, to say that you shouldn’t shoot human beings on sight,” Carrillo said.

Carrillo is the Texas state director for America’s Voice, an immigrant advocacy group. He immigrated to the United States from Mexico with his parents when he was 5 years old.

“I don’t think I’ve felt less welcome as an immigrant to this country than I have in the last three years,” said Carrillo, now 34 and a naturalized U.S. citizen. His wife is a DACA recipient, one of the undocumented “dreamers” brought to the United States as children, and he said he lives in “constant fear” of her being detained or deported. In his advocacy work, the undocumented immigrants he works with are all experiencing the same thing.

“I think the climate for Latinos right now is very dangerous, and I think it really starts at the top with the president’s rhetoric,” Carrillo said. “I’m very well aware that racism against Latinos didn’t start with Donald Trump, but when the president of the United States not only enables prejudice, but encourages it, it makes for a dangerous environment.”

Elizabeth Vaquera is an associate professor of sociology and public policy and public administration at George Washington University who studies the well-being of vulnerable groups. She has studied the impact that Trump’s time in office has had on Latinos.

Vaquera and her colleagues surveyed 213 Latino parents of adolescents in the suburbs of a large Mid-Atlantic city in 2017. They asked the parents about their responses to immigration news and actions since Trump became president. The survey found that the parents reported being worried and changing their behaviors.

“They talked very explicitly about how they saw the rise of Trump being connected to the increasing discrimination they were experiencing in private and public spaces,” Vaquera said.

“Based on what they were hearing on the news, they expressed enhanced psychological distress, depression and heightened anxiety,” Vaquera said.

The study surveyed undocumented people, U.S. citizens and those in the United States under temporary protected status. Regardless of their immigration status, all of the participants experienced at least some increased anxiety.

“The language that criminalizes and makes Latinos out to be evil is affecting our own citizens and it’s going to have both short- and long-term consequences that we are starting to see in the Latino population,” Vaquera said.

Ian Haney López, Chief Justice Earl Warren professor of public law at the University of California at Berkeley, said Trump’s rhetoric linking Latinos to crime and lawlessness is intentional.

“It’s a way to promote a racial threat and deny that’s what he’s doing,” said Haney López, whose upcoming book “Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America” focuses on how to combat dog-whistle politics.

He cited Trump’s use of the term “invaders” when talking about groups of mainly Central American migrants crossing the southern U.S. border and seeking asylum. In July, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported a 21 percent drop in apprehensions at the border after a high in May because of the searing heat of the summer and what the Trump administration credits to changes in policy meant to deter migrants.

The Trump administration also has stepped up enforcement against undocumented people working in the United States. Last week, an ICE raid at a Mississippi chicken plant resulted in the arrests of nearly 700 people, and video showed children crying as they were left without their parents. This week, Trump targeted immigrants who have come to the country legally, enacting a new policy that would deny green cards and a path to citizenship for poor immigrants who use public benefits.

“All of that very strongly communicates a message that people are under threat from an invading army of racial invaders who are barbaric and inherently criminal,” Haney López said. “That’s the core theme from Trump’s opening salvo.”

While Latinos tend to vote for Democrats, the group is by no means a monolith. In the 2016 presidential election, Democrat Hillary Clinton captured 66 percent of the Latino vote. Latino communities in the United States encompass a wide range of identities and races and include people ranging from those who have lived in this country for generations to recent immigrants. Central America and South America immigrants bring to the states specific histories that inform their political beliefs.

Tito Anchondo, whose brother and sister-in-law were killed in the El Paso shooting, told NPR that he did not take issue with the way Trump discusses immigrants and that his brother had supported Trump.

“Maybe he said things in bad taste,” Anchondo told NPR. “But I think people are misconstruing President Trump’s ideas.”

Anchondo also said that he wished people would not politicize his brother’s death after many called a photo of Trump posing with a thumbs-up sign while holding the couple’s orphaned baby insensitive.

Other Latinos not as close to the trauma also don’t make a direct connection. Danubia Moreno, who lives in Washington, D.C., said that she doesn’t follow politics but was shaken by the tragedy.

“There are no words to describe what happened,” Moreno said. As to whether she thought Trump’s words played a role, she said, “That is not for me to decide.”

“There has always been hatred in the world,” Moreno said, adding that comparing discrimination now to before Trump would be like comparing fruit. Reciting a Spanish idiom similar to “a few bad apples spoil the bunch,” Moreno said: “There have always been bad fruits and good fruits.”

As many Latinos feel the brunt of increasing racial tensions, that discomfort isn’t likely to end anytime soon as the demographic grows and some white, non-Hispanic Americans resist evolving demographics. A Public Religion Research Institute survey found that 64 percent of Americans said that the United States becoming a majority nonwhite nation by 2045 would be mostly positive. That view differs, however, among party lines. While 80 percent of Democrats say the growth is positive, 61 percent of Republicans say it’s a negative development.

“I feel like the narrative on immigration has gotten to a point where some people refuse to see the humanity of immigrants,” Carrillo said. “That can lead to the dangerous consequences we’ve seen now.”