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Oregon leaders, Latinx advocates react to El Paso shooting

SALEM — Latinx advocates, politicians and residents in Oregon expressed sorrow, frustration and worry this week after 22 people perished in a shooting Saturday at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas.

“The feeling is definitely really heavy in my house,” said Reyna Lopez, executive director of PCUN, the Oregon farmworkers’ union.

“That could have been me,” said Juan Navarro, 26, a recent graduate from a master’s program. “That could have been my family.”

Some said the El Paso shooting is an egregious example of racism in an era where bias-motivated crimes and white supremacist violence appear to be on the rise, and as President Donald Trump’s administration faces criticism for his rhetoric toward immigrants.

“I think El Paso was a culmination of the hateful rhetoric and racist rhetoric, really, that we’ve been hearing for a long time now,” said Iván Hernández, a spokesman for Causa, an Oregon immigrants’ rights group.

“It’s pretty crazy, and worrisome, but also, it’s not surprising,” said Brenda Flores, internal director for Raíces, an organization that does outreach to the Latinx community in Umatilla and Morrow counties. “Just because with the political climate that’s going around, and how the Latino population has been attacked by political parties, and even the president, it’s kind of no surprise.”

In an email, a spokeswoman for the Portland field office of the FBI said that at the moment there were “no known threats in our area” directed at the Latinx community.

The FBI in Portland is still working with local, state and federal police to “gather, share and act upon threat information as it comes to our attention,” an FBI spokeswoman said in an email.

“We continue to urge the public to remain vigilant and report any and all suspicious activity and/or individuals to law enforcement immediately,” Jennifer Adams, the spokeswoman, wrote.

In 2018, police agencies across Oregon reported 73 bias crimes against people based on race, ethnicity or national origin.

Fifteen of those reported crimes were against people of Hispanic origin, according to Oregon State Police.

However, police don’t collect and report data on bias crimes consistently across agencies, and experts say the number of hate crimes, in Oregon and nationally, is likely underreported.

People of Hispanic or Latino origin make up about 13 percent of the state’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In May 2018, Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum convened a task force to study hate crimes here.

The group reviews legal protections for victims of hate crimes, recommends policy to legislators, and studies whether police have resources to investigate and fight hate crimes.

The task force’s work prompted state legislators to pass this year the most significant revision of the state’s hate crime law in about 30 years.

In the early 1980s, lawmakers were trying to confront violent acts carried out by organized white supremacist groups.

Previously, the law distinguished between bias-motivated crimes committed by one person and those committed by more than one person. The former was considered a misdemeanor, the latter a felony.

The new law focuses more on the degree of harm to the victim, rather than the number of perpetrators, said Andrew Riley, a spokesman for Unite Oregon, a group that works to address racial and economic disparities through community organizing.

“I think what we’ve seen, probably over the last 10 to 15 years, is more of the individualized attacks inspired by, but not necessarily connected to larger, organized groups,” Riley said.

This year’s legislative reform through Senate Bill 577 also pushes for more accurate data about bias crimes in the state.

The law requires the state’s association of local prosecutors and the state police to standardize information about bias crimes, and creates a hate crime reporting hotline at the Oregon Department of Justice.

“We flat out do not track incidents which are rooted in hate and bigotry, but do not rise to the level of hate crimes under the law,” Kayse Jama, executive director of Unite Oregon, testified to legislators earlier this year. “We know that there’s an increase in hate incidents, but we don’t know much beyond that.”

“It is important to call this what it is,” Iván Hernández said of the El Paso shooting. “Which all indications say, it’s a hate crime. And it was a racist incident, motivated by racial and anti-immigrant rhetoric.”

State Rep. Diego Hernandez said he wants politicians to speak out against racism and white supremacy, and take action through public policy.

“I want to see other elected leaders come up with policy and actual resources to combat the growing sentiment of hate and white nationalism,” Hernandez said. “I think communities of color, especially the Latinx community — they’re not homogenous — but we’re definitely in living in fear of persecution both by the federal government and by people who are racist or hate us.”

Meanwhile, everyday life continues. On Wednesday afternoon, the parking lot of the Walmart in northeast Salem bustled with customers.

“It is scary, because in this world, it seems like nothing is safe,” said Velma Veliz, 50, a shopper leaving the store.

Veliz heard about the shooting in El Paso through an alert on her phone.

“It was terrible,” Veliz said of how she felt when she saw the alert. “You know, when you hear about something like that, it’s tragic.”

“It’s sad, you know what I mean?” said Cecilia Arroyo, 27, who was collecting her three young sons to go into the store. “Makes you think about how you treat people.”

She said the El Paso shooting “most definitely” made her think twice about going out in public to places like Walmart.

Advocates say they are looking ahead.

“We’re seeing people more involved in the political process and also more involved in other ways in our community,” said Iván Hernandez. “I’m hoping this event, this tragic, tragic event, only leads us to being more united than ever so we can be part of the change we want to see.”

Reporter Claire Withycombe: cwithycombe@eomediagroup.com or 971-304-4148.