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For many, it's clear why El Paso, the "ground zero" of the border debate, was the shooting target

For many, it's clear why El Paso was targeted

When a gunman stormed a crowded Walmart in El Paso on Saturday, killing at least 22 people and injuring more than two dozen others, the Texas border city was hit with an unprecedented level of bloodshed and grief. 

Along with another mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio some 13 hours later, the massacre in this border community, unaccustomed to such large-scale acts of violence, reignited the highly contentious national debate around proposals to regulate guns. 

And for many residents of El Paso — an epicenter of another of the nation's most divisive issues, immigration — the gruesome attack not only underscored the need to restrict access to high-power weapons like the one used by the alleged assailant, it also represented a clear and direct assault on the city's diversity and its standing as a welcoming community for migrants. 

"We really don't have to guess. We know. We were targeted because the terrorist wanted to attack a mostly Latino and immigrant community," Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar, who represents El Paso, told CBS News in an interview. 

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El Paso, Spanish for "the pass," stands at the intersection of two U.S. states, Texas and New Mexico, and shares an international border with the Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez. Camilo Montoya-Galvez

Nestled in the Chihuahuan Desert, El Paso, Spanish for "the pass," sits at the intersection of two U.S. states, Texas and New Mexico, and shares an international border with Ciudad Juárez, the largest city in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. In this predominantly Latino community, home to a large group of binational workers and bilingual residents, many business signs are in both English and Spanish and family-owned Mexican eateries stand alongside hipster coffee shops. 

Escobar and other community members believe their city's symbolism as a beacon of multiculturalism and strong binational ties attracted the suspected shooter, a 21-year-old white man who is in government custody. 

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Many of the small businesses in the predominately Latino border city of El Paso have signage in both English and Spanish. Camilo Montoya-Galvez

The deadly rampage is being treated as an act of domestic terrorism by the Justice Department and a potential hate crime by federal investigators, who are probing a racist, anti-immigrant document purportedly authored by the suspect. The alleged manifesto decries the growing political power of Texas' large Latino community and denounces progressive positions on immigration. 

Like other high-profile Democrats, Escobar drew a direct link between President Trump's hard-line and often inflammatory rhetoric on immigration and the apparent motives of the gunman. In fiery rally speeches and official proclamations touting his hard-line immigration agenda, the president has employed words like "invasion" to describe the movement of migrants.

"We have been talked about a lot by the president. We have been ground zero for the Trump administration's anti-immigrant agenda," the Texas Democrat said. "That means we've been in the news a lot."

Escobar, one of two of the first Latinas to represent Texas in Congress, said the El Paso community's response to a months-long surge of migrants — particularly families with small children — heading toward the southern border was also most likely targeted by the gunman. She said she herself has been targeted because of her advocacy in this field.

"I've been the subject of death threats because I have essentially called for our better angels during these challenging times," she said. "I've been attacked for asking people to treat migrants with compassion. There's something very sick happening to our country."

Located in one of the most highly transited parts of the U.S.-Mexico border, El Paso has fed and sheltered tens of thousands of migrant families from all corners of the globe, particularly Central America, this year alone. Most of them have been assisted by the Annunciation House network of shelters, which in the late winter and early spring managed to house — partly by spending more than $1 million in hotel rooms — thousands of migrant families released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 

The Annunciation House director, Ruben Garcia, who was born and raised in the city, called the massacre an "obscenity" and stressed that the alleged shooter, a resident of the Dallas suburb of Allen, is not a member of the El Paso community. 

"This is someone who came out of El Paso to do harm to our city, to our people, to our way of life," Garcia told CBS News in an interview. "And I think first, that in itself is an acknowledgement of who the people of the city of El Paso are."

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Annunciation House director Ruben Garcia, left, stands alongside Democratic Sens. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Tim Kaine of Virginia to talk to a migrant family at the "Casa del Refugiado" shelter in El Paso.  Camilo Montoya-Galvez

Like Escobar, the shelter director described El Paso as "ground zero" for the recent large influx of asylum-seeking families and the administration's efforts to stem their migration. He noted that U.S. officials implemented a pilot program in the area in late 2017 that served as a precursor to the administration's controversial "zero tolerance" policy, which led to the forcible separation of nearly 3,000 migrant families.

Dylan Corbett, executive director of the El Paso-based non-profit Hope Border Institute said the Texas border city's response to the unprecedented flow of migrants that began late last year serves as a stark alternative to the administration's deterrence efforts. 

"The way that is being presented to us by the people in power in the White House is that we have respond with fear. And we have to respond with demonization. And that we have to treat these people like criminals. And that we're somehow going to militarize to solve these problems. When on the ground, the reality here has been quite different," Corbett told CBS News in an interview. 

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Dozens of murals, including the one above, adorn El Paso, paying tribute to the city's diversity and ties to neighboring Mexico.  Camilo Montoya-Galvez

If the gunman targeted El Paso partly because of the community's advocacy and work with migrants, Corbett said, the city would not surrender the values he believes defines it. 

"If we've been attacked because of that, because of our compassion, because of generosity, then I think we need to double down on that," he said. "And we think we can show the rest of the country that these values are worth fighting for." 

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