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Beto O’Rourke Built His Career on Driving Out Low-Income Mexican Communities

The El Paso shooting is a continuation of anti-Latino violence that spans decades.

Democratic presidential candidate and former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke speaks to the media outside a youth migrant jail in Homestead, Florida, on June 27, 2019.

In the aftermath of the El Paso, Texas, shooting that claimed the lives of 22 people and wounded 25 more, there is no question that white supremacist extremism is boiling over the pot heated by centuries of anti-Mexican violence.

For El Paso Latinos who have been grating under Trump’s brutal rhetoric and policies, there was something both shocking and familiar about the terror that befell our city on one sweltering, desert summer day. We watched in stunned horror as our city became the center of the same old narrative about guns and video games.

Totally absent from this discourse, however, was the context of class warfare that targets low-income Mexican communities for obliteration in El Paso. Over the past three years, the ratcheting up of overt racism aimed at people of Mexican origin is now culminating in bloodshed. But the ongoing and systematic effort by bipartisan, wealthy interests to divest the working-class people of El Paso of their resources, schools and homes precedes Trump.

Organizing to Save El Paso Schools

During mid-summer of this year, Guillermo Glenn would have never expected that, in a month, he would be saving those wounded by the white supremacist shooter who targeted El Paso because of its high concentration of Latinos.

“The overt racism of the Walmart tragedy is very clear, documented by a hate-filled manifesto targeting Mexicans,” Glenn said. “But institutional racism, which has historically plagued El Paso, is more difficult to identify and define.”

In the months leading up to the shooting, Glenn, a lifelong community organizer who has been challenging white supremacy, was supporting Familias Unidas del Chamizal, a group formed to fight the closure of the public school attended by their children, Beall Elementary. The school sits a few thousand feet from the border with Mexico and is the newest campus in the South El Paso neighborhood, built many decades after its counterparts. Its enrollment numbers were also the highest in this area, high enough to meet the number of students required by the El Paso Independent School District (EPISD) to remain open.

Parents of children attending Beall were therefore baffled as to why this school, which is located in a residential zone and surrounded by neighborhood amenities, was chosen for closure among others in the district. Students would be forced to go to one of the two nearest schools, both having lower enrollment numbers. One campus is feet from the international highway which is packed daily with heavy traffic spewing large amounts of pollution into the air, and the other school is located directly across the street from an industrial waste facility that recycles trash, including batteries, electronics and metals from Juárez, Mexico, and is not bound to high standards of environmental regulation.

Residents of Barrio Chamizal, the neighborhood that Beall served, had prevented the EPISD board from closing Beall for four years, and when the board was finally able to do so, it was without any transparency or accountability to the community.

Familias Unidas del Chamizal pursued board members and EPISD administrators seeking redress for their frustration caused by the environmental racism their children were to face by spending every day on a heavily polluted campus. The board ignored their pleas and offered half-hearted explanations that never addressed why they reached their decision to close the neighborhood’s newest, cleanest, most well-attended school. Throughout 2018 and much of 2019, Familias Unidas del Chamizal organized, protested and even went on a hunger strike to pressure the board to overturn its ruling.

“The institutional racism by the school board is expressed by dismantling schools that had 97 percent immigrant children and moving them to unsafe, environmentally questionable schools,” Glenn said.

EPISD touts the closure of Beall as part of its “Rightsizing for the Future” initiative. As seen in many cities throughout the United States, this attempt to rebrand the defunding of public education is a means to divest low-income communities of essential, much-needed resources while attempting to slap a “practical” and “efficient” face on the insidious practice.

Such policies reduce the number of schools and teachers, encourage hiring freezes and diminish teachers’ rights by heightening their disposability. These policies also overstuff classrooms with unwieldy student-to-teacher ratios, and promote charterization and privatization. It is working-class people and communities of color who bear the brunt of these policies.

Perhaps just as troubling as the larger national agenda to abolish public education is the broader context of gentrification out of which the decision to eliminate Beall from Barrio Chamizal emerged. The board’s ruling coincides with work that city leaders have been doing for years to expel the neighborhood’s working poor.

Barrio Chamizal boasts one of the highest concentrations of immigrant residents in the country, and its members also suffer from the most severe levels of poverty. Since at least 2016, urban planners and the Housing Authority of the City of El Paso have been working to “revitalize” the area by closing historic housing projects and forcing low-income Mexicans out of the barrio by raising property values. Of course, the so-called benevolent intention of “cleaning up” the neighborhood is the stated reason for these efforts, but the outcome would fundamentally be the erasure an entire community.

Fighting for El Paso Neighborhoods

Barrio Chamizal is not the only neighborhood facing destruction by powerful interests in El Paso. Duranguito, a historic neighborhood roughly two miles southwest of Beall, was put on the chopping block when city leaders and wealthy developers put forth a plan to build a massive arena in downtown El Paso in 2016.

The arena was the latest in a decades-long endeavor to gentrify the city’s downtown, one that involved current democratic presidential candidate Rep. Beto O’Rourke in its early stages. Long before his Senate run against Ted Cruz that earned him national acclaim, O’Rourke’s first political gig was sitting on the El Paso City Council. To local activists, he is best remembered for his support to transform the city’s downtown by driving out low-income residents and demolishing traditionally immigrant neighborhoods.

In 2006, El Paso millionaire and real estate developer Bill Sanders spearheaded the campaign to evict thousands of mostly elderly people of Mexican origin who had made the downtown area their home after immigrating to the U.S. a generation ago, in order to replace the barrio with an entertainment and retail district.

Despite being married to Sanders’s daughter, O’Rourke refused to recuse himself from a city council vote in 2008 that would allow the use of eminent domain in forcing these residents from their homes to allow the downtown redevelopment plan to be realized. For years, a battle ensued between El Paso’s wealthy business class and the working-class Latinos of the city’s downtown, and throughout this struggle, O’Rourke stood firmly on the side of El Paso’s mostly white elites. For those familiar with this story, it is hard to perceive O’Rourke’s staunch opposition to the use of eminent domain for the border wall as anything but disingenuous.

O’Rourke represents the run-of-the-mill milquetoast centrism that drives the Democratic Party, as he ran for Congress on cuts to Social Security, voted to fast-track negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership once in the House, and waffled on Medicare for All in his more recent campaigns for higher office. But what’s especially interesting about his political career is how, from its beginning, it epitomizes how the right-wing elements of the Democratic Party have failed Latinos.

On the one hand, neoliberal rhetoric on immigration is certainly more humane when put up against that of Republicans. But when it comes to how policies impact people of Mexican origin on the ground, there are minute differences at best between the two major parties. For example, O’Rourke has a markedly conservative congressional voting record in which he even supported a law put forth by the Trump administration that eliminated screening requirements for hiring Customs and Border Protection officers.

The Future for Latinos Under Bipartisan Racism

If the trajectory of O’Rourke’s political career is any indication of what kind of president he would be, his candidacy doesn’t bode well for low-income Latinos. While he has made immigration and issues facing the border his bailiwick, it is unclear how his policies would deviate from the Obama administration that contributed to the widespread criminalization and deportation of immigrants.

The fascistic policies of the Trump administration regarding immigration are undoubtedly an amplification of what previous administrations have done, but they are by no means a deviation. For Latinos in the borderlands now facing incarceration and violence at the hands of the anti-immigrant maelstrom that has loomed for generations, it brings little hope that a presidential candidate from El Paso built his career by supporting efforts to eradicate low-income Mexican communities from the city that he so publicly venerates.

When genocide takes the form of mass murder, it is obvious and easy to name. For a politician to assume a very vocal opposition to that slaughter and the rhetoric that brought it on is a low bar in the fight against white supremacy.

The annihilation of poor Latinos from El Paso is, unfortunately, nearly as old as the city itself, as practically every generation has seen similar struggles played out over the past century. Violence against the city’s Mexicans has come in many forms — the divestment of resources, expulsion from homes, deportation, internment and now, racially motivated killing.

The recent shooting is simply the latest in the continual onslaught that low-income people of color have experienced throughout El Paso’s history. What’s more, it was brought on by words and policies that are certainly an exaggeration of what has come before but are by no means an aberration.

If Democrats hope to fight the Trump administration’s brutal policies, they would do well to atone for their own history and understand the relationship that white supremacy has with class warfare. It has not been racist rhetoric alone that has gotten us to this point, and it will take a lot more than condemnation of hateful words to improve the conditions of Latinos in years to come.

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