When Donald Trump held a rally in 2016 at the San Diego Convention Center, hundreds of cops in riot gear stood guard against protesters outside as Trump’s supporters inside chanted “build the wall!”
On Monday at the same convention hall, just 15 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, Democrats running for president cast Trump as a dangerous racist inciting violent gunmen to kill people. A couple thousand Latinos in the audience roundly applauded as the candidates denounced his bigotry.
The killing of 22 people on Saturday in a Walmart in El Paso by a gunman suspected of targeting Latinos darkened the mood of the annual conference of UnidosUS, the nation’s biggest Latino civil rights group.
“It was an attack on immigrants,” former U.S. Housing Secretary Julián Castro told the crowd. “It was an attack on Mexicans and Mexican Americans, and that is no accident. That is due in part to the climate that this president has set of division.”
Castro and four rivals in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination — Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and former Vice President Joe Biden — took turns criticizing Trump. Each drew a connection between Trump’s often racially divisive comments and the El Paso massacre.
“Today I say to President Trump: Stop your anti-immigrant rhetoric, stop the hatred,” Sanders told the audience. Trump’s aggressive language “creates a situation where certain people do terrible things,” he added.
All the candidates were warmly welcomed, a sign of the challenge Trump will face in November 2020 in battleground states with large Latino and immigrant populations, such as Nevada and Florida.
Janet Murguía, president of UnidosUS, formerly National Council of La Raza, accused Trump of systematically trying “to create a hateful portrait of Hispanics in this country that dehumanizes us to the broader public.”
She condemned his descriptions of migrants crossing the southern border “as animals, rapists and murderers.” She recalled Trump’s suggestion that U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who was born in Indiana, could not be impartial in a suit against the defunct Trump University because of his Mexican ancestry. Trump griped about the judge at the May 2016 rally in San Diego.
“President Trump’s bigoted and hateful words have resulted in hateful and deadly consequences,” Murguía told reporters.
Mary Montaño, a retired nonprofit consultant who lives in Carlsbad, was sharing her disapproval of Trump with fellow UnidosUS supporters at lunch in a convention center banquet hall before the Democrats began speaking.
“He’s fomenting radicalism and white supremacy,” she said.
The 21-year-old white man who is accused of opening fire in the crowded Walmart on Saturday had posted a manifesto online lamenting a “Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
Trump has often complained of an “invasion” of immigrants from Mexico and Central America. When he told supporters at a Florida rally in May that you can’t “stop these people,” a man in the crowd shouted, “Shoot them.”
“Only in the Panhandle can you get away with that statement,” Trump joked.
Harris told the UnidosUS gathering that Latinos were now “targets of hate, misinformation, and coming from the voices of very powerful people, including the president of the United States.”
“We are on the right side of history, and when this is all over and this moment passes, we will remember that we were the ones who fought for the best of who this country is,” she said.
In a speech Monday at the White House, Trump denounced “racism, bigotry and white supremacy,” saying “these sinister ideologies must be defeated.”
Biden criticized the president for suggesting that mental illness was the root problem that needed to be addressed with mass shooters. Most are actually “driven by hate,” Biden said. He reminded the activists that Trump had said there were “very fine people on both sides” of a 2017 violent clash between white supremacist neo-Nazis and their opponents in Charlottesville, Va.
“God forgive him,” Biden said. “Ladies and gentlemen, the words a president utters matter. The world listens.”
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and other Democrats in the presidential race denounced Trump on Twitter. “White supremacy is not a mental illness,” Booker tweeted, “and guns are a tool that white supremacists use to fulfill their hate.”
Lisa Cuestas, the daughter of an immigrant from Juarez, Mexico, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, came to the conference from San Ysidro, a border town where she heads the Casa Familiar social services organization. She finds Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric appalling.
“It paints an entire people as if they were inherently born bad,” she said. “It’s a dangerous way to communicate. When you do that, you create targets, and we should be beyond that by now.”