In this op-ed, writer Lola Méndez explains why the mass shooting in El Paso, where a shooter killed 22 people, including seven Mexican nationals, is a horrific reminder that Latinx people aren’t safe in the United States.
“Hispanic Americans were the target today,” read the text from my sister, a law student at George Washington University who is focusing on immigration. It confirmed what we’ve always known, as the children of immigrants: The United States is not a safe place for Latinx people. I was in Cancún surrounded by Mexican families enjoying the beach when I received the news that a 21-year-old white man opened fire at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, on Saturday. The shooter was reportedly targeting Latinx people, according to a manifesto police said he posted to an online forum. Now it's clearer than ever that when the president tweets about Latinx immigrants “invading” the country, he places a target on their backs and mine.
I asked my sister how she was feeling, and she echoed my thoughts: We’re thankful our immigrant father left the United States this summer to retire in Uruguay, where he’ll have affordable access to health care and a better quality of life. Almost 50 years ago, he fled Uruguay after being tortured during the military dictatorship that ended in 1985. Once he had recovered from being electrocuted by members of the military, he made his way from Uruguay to Mexico, mostly on foot, before flying to the United States. The trauma of being in public places that erupted in gunfire during Uruguay's dictatorship stayed with him. Today, in restaurants, he still only sits in chairs facing the doors.
It's likely many of the 58.9 million Hispanics in the United States have fled similar violence. They, like my father, may have pursued the American Dream in hopes of a safer life. But some of those people may have fled danger in their birth countries only to be murdered while shopping in the United States.
An anti-immigrant manifesto that police believe to be posted by the El Paso gunman stated that the attack was in response to a “Hispanic invasion of Texas.” Twenty people were killed, and 26 others were injured during the carnage, making this the deadliest terrorist attack targeting Latinx people in modern American history, according to The New York Times. According to the census, more than 80% of El Paso is Latinx. But it’s unlikely we’ll ever know the full impact of the shooting. Some people who were injured likely didn’t seek life-saving medical treatment or go to reunification centers to look for loved ones due to their immigration status, CNN reported. Experts suggested that people were worried about being targeted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) even as this tragedy unfolded.
I encourage everyone I meet in Latin America to nix their plans to pursue the American Dream — it’s a death trap.
Saturday’s terrorist attack in El Paso wasn’t the only mass shooting over the weekend. Another deadly episode of gun violence shocked the country when a young white man killed nine and injured 27 in Dayton, Ohio, on Sunday. These devastating shootings are senseless and entirely preventable. Assault weapons were banned for a decade in the United States beginning in 1994, and gun crimes dropped by 32% during that time, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The ban wasn’t renewed by Congress when it expired in 2004.
The United States has had 254 mass shootings in 2019 where multiple people were injured, according to the Gun Violence Archive. In the last 18 years, nearly 39,000 school-age children have been killed by firearms in the U.S., according to a study published in the American Journal of Medicine. In 2017, the researchers note, the number of children killed was more than double the number of active military members killed, and about 17 times the number of police officers who died in the line of duty.
Fearmongering propaganda among white nationalists claims that immigrants are the root of violence in the United States and shouldn’t be allowed into the country. But gun violence isn’t a result of immigration. The shooters at Parkland, Tree of Life, Las Vegas, Borderline Bar, Sandy Hook, and Charleston were all American citizens. In fact, hate crimes, which includes violence toward minorities and immigrants, increased 17% between 2016 and 2017, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's 2017 Hate Crime Statistics report. In California alone, hate crimes against Latinx people specifically went up 50% since 2016.
Gun violence and the need for reform is a frequent topic of conversation for my family. In 2012, when 20 children were slaughtered by a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I learned my right to safely go places matters less than the Second Amendment. In 2014, my hometown of Overland Park, Kansas, was rocked by gun violence when a gunman, who was a member of white supremacist groups, murdered three people, including a student from my former high school, citing his anti-Semitic views. In 2017, an Indian man was murdered nearby in Olathe, Kansas — witnesses said the gunman reportedly declared “get out of my country” before the murder.
I was visiting my family in Pompano Beach, Florida, in 2018 when the Marjory Stoneman Douglas massacre occurred nearby in Parkland. When I left the United States a month after that mass shooting, I told my family I’d never live in the United States again. I refuse to live in fear of being shot while going about simple everyday activities. I feel much safer traveling full-time and living overseas, and I am beyond relieved my parents have left.
I know the death of brown people won’t change our gun laws, and I know Latinx people aren’t safe in the United States. Our community faces endless violence, from detention camps at the border to the hate that trickles down from President Donald Trump's rhetoric and incites violence. I encourage everyone I meet in Latin America to nix their plans to pursue the American Dream — it’s a death trap. The only way to avoid being hit by a bullet is to not step foot into this country until we have sensible gun reform and a president who encourages coexistence and cross-cultural understanding. And for those who are already in the United States, know that it's up to you to elect that president and help make this country a safe place for Latinx folks to be.