EL PASO — Hours before President Trump arrived in this desert city on the Mexico border, high school students clad in black released white balloons for every one of the 22 victims killed in one of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in modern American history.
Hundreds of people later gathered at a central park to protest the president’s visit, saying he had inflamed the kind of racial and ethnic hostilities that led the shooter to target Latinos at a Walmart in the commercial center of the city. Condemnation of the president’s anti-immigrant rhetoric has been inescapable, too, at a memorial near the site of the shooting where people have stopped by the thousands — after work, between lunch breaks, often in scorching heat — to march and pray and drop off flowers, stuffed animals, and balloons.
As Trump and his wife, Melania, visited survivors and offered what administration officials said was a message of national unity, they found a city fighting through grief, and some grappling with its identity as the epicenter of the nation’s immigration battle. And there were many who didn’t want him there at all.
“I think he should have waited,” said Aracely Calderon, 40, a native of neighboring Ciudad Juárez in Mexico and a retail manager at a Fort Bliss store, who came to pay her respects Wednesday evening at the memorial. “I just think it was very disrespectful of him.”
The president’s visit to El Paso came after a stop at the site of another mass shooting, in Dayton, Ohio, that left another nine dead just hours after the massacre in Texas. Against the backdrop of the Franklin mountains, he jumped into his motorcade with only a wave to reporters after shaking hands and briefly chatting with Texas Governor Greg Abbott, Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, and El Paso Mayor Dee Margo.
Speaking to reporters on the tarmac, Margo said Trump asked him how it was going: “I told him it was one day at time.”
“Your thoughts on the president coming to El Paso?” a reporter asked.
“Well, he is the president,” Margo replied as he walked away.
Deflecting questions about the president’s racist comments toward four congresswomen and anti-immigrant rhetoric, Cruz instead shifted attention to the shooter in Dayton, saying he was a supporter of Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
“Sadly no party has a monopoly on hate, no party has a monopoly on racism and bigotry,” he said.
Latinos nationwide have been grappling with new levels of fear after the targeted attacks, and the impact has been acutely felt in El Paso, which is 80 percent Hispanic and where people live fluidly between Mexico and the United States. Investigators say a white supremacist drove almost 11 hours from the Dallas area before opening fire inside the Walmart. Prosecutors are investigating the crime as an act of domestic terrorism after investigators linked an anti-immigrant and anti-Latino screed to the 21-year-old white man accused in the attack. The posting used some of the same rhetoric the president has used regarding immigrants.
The president further angered some El Pasoans on Monday, when he condemned white supremacy but omitted any reference to Latinos and failed to address his own incendiary language.
Trump didn’t help matters on Wednesday when — before boarding Air Force One on his way to Ohio — he took shots on Twitter at his political foes, The New York Times, and “radical left Democrats.” Among his targets was Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, an El Paso native and former US representative, whom the president taunted over his name.
O’Rourke shot back with a tweet of his own, “22 in my hometown are dead after an act of terror inspired by your racism. El Paso will not be quiet and neither will I.”
At a tribute ceremony for victims at El Dorado High School on Wednesday morning, student council members said they organized the event and invited O’Rourke to speak because they wanted to show the nation a positive image of their city.
“I think it’s like you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” senior class vice president Khendra Jacome, 17, said of her conflicting feelings about the president’s visit. “That is why I fought so much to get Beto O’Rourke here because he’s from here, he knows the type of community that we have . . . so you know, I thought let’s fight the negative with the positive.”
After praying with students and shaking hands, O’Rourke told reporters he shot back at the president “because he’s trying to intimidate this community, make us afraid of one another, of our differences, of the border, of immigrants, and we will not stand down.”
He and US Representative Veronica Escobar, whose district includes the Walmart where the shooting took place, later opted to attend the counter-rally at Washington Park.
By the time the sun began to set over the mountains, the crowds were back at the Walmart, where white crosses with the names and photos of victims overlook a parking lot still filled with cars left behind. Some have left placards denouncing the shooter and also Trump for their hateful views.
“If you only got to know our people, our streets, our culture,” reads one sign, “then you would see how precious our city is.”