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FRONTLINE: Targeting El Paso

FRONTLINE investigates how El Paso became Trump's immigration testing ground and then the target of a white supremacist. With interviews of current and former officials, border patrol agents, advocates and migrants, the inside story from the epicenter of the border crisis. This photo was shot at the El Paso/Mexico border.
Courtesy of Rachel Anderson/FRONTLINE
FRONTLINE investigates how El Paso became Trump's immigration testing ground and then the target of a white supremacist. With interviews of current and former officials, border patrol agents, advocates and migrants, the inside story from the epicenter of the border crisis. This photo was shot at the El Paso/Mexico border.

Airs Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020 at 10:30 p.m. on KPBS TV

FRONTLINE Investigates How El Paso Came to Be Front and Center in America’s Immigration Battle

On Aug. 3, 2019, a gunman entered a bustling Walmart near the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas and killed 22 people, many of them Mexican-Americans.

Authorities say that prior to the killing spree, he posted a white supremacist manifesto decrying a “Hispanic invasion,” and that after his arrest, he told police he was targeting Mexicans.


On FRONTLINE “Targeting El Paso,” producer Marcela Gaviria, correspondent Martin Smith and their team investigate how the city that’s been called the Ellis Island of the Southwest became a testing ground for some of President Donald Trump’s most controversial immigration policies, a subject of his anti-immigrant rhetoric, the site of a surge of migrant families crossing the border — and the target of a white supremacist with an assault rifle.

Drawing on interviews with current and former officials, border patrol agents, advocates, and migrants, the film traces the role this multicultural enclave bordering its sister city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico has played in the development of the Trump administration’s immigration agenda.

“We have a million-person break-in over the last fiscal year on the southern border,” Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, tells FRONTLINE. “If you don't have a border, you don't have sovereignty or a nation, and we're fighting to maintain that right now.”

El Paso, the film finds, has played a central role in that fight. The city “is used in order to beta test policies that get scaled up and used in other parts of the country,” Dylan Corbett, executive director of the El Paso-based Hope Border Institute, tells FRONTLINE. “Here in El Paso, we unfortunately have been a laboratory for immigration enforcement here on the border.”

Among the experiments rooted in El Paso: family separations stemming from “zero tolerance,” the Trump administration policy of criminally prosecuting any adult who enters the country unlawfully.


In the Peabody Award-winning 2018 documentary "Separated: Children at the Border," Gaviria and Smith were among the first to report that separations were happening to families who crossed the border illegally months before the policy was officially announced.

Now, Gaviria and Smith go even deeper, reporting on how a version of “zero tolerance” was locally piloted in El Paso months before the policy went national, and speaking with a high-ranking officer with El Paso’s Border Patrol Union, Wesley Farris, about implementing the initiative: “That was the most horrible thing I've ever done … none of us were happy about it,” Farris says of separating children from their parents. “But everybody around me was just doing exactly what we were all told to do this.”  

In the last two years, two migrant children have died in El Paso Border Patrol custody. The film goes inside the treatment of migrant kids, including the decision to hold minors en masse in a facility in Clint, Texas, 20 miles from El Paso — where conditions revealed by court-appointed monitors would eventually spark Congressional hearings.

“The children were wearing clothing that was covered in nasal mucous, in vomit,” Elora Mukerjee, one of the monitors, tells FRONTLINE. “There was a strong stench. They weren't given an opportunity to shower for days, sometimes weeks, sometimes not at all since crossing the border.”

On “Targeting El Paso,” a nine-year-old girl who was held at the Clint facility speaks out: “I had to sleep on the floor with the other kids,” she tells FRONTLINE. “They didn’t let us go out much. Maybe we’d go out about 15 minutes a day And the rest of the time we were locked up.”

The film also explores the implementation of Remain in Mexico, a program piloted in El Paso in which people seeking asylum in the U.S. are held in Mexico instead, in order to alleviate severe overcrowding inside Border Patrol’s overwhelmed processing centers.

“I read a sign that said that only 37 people were allowed inside, but they had 200 people in there,” Sebastian, a young man who fled Guatemala with his siblings after his sister was raped by a gang, tells FRONTLINE of his time in Border Patrol’s custody. “I was locked up for eight days.”

Sebastian was then sent to Mexico, where he’s living in limbo, waiting to learn if he’ll be among the few program participants who have been granted asylum in the U.S.: “If I go back [to Guatemala], they’re going to kill me,” he says. “There is nothing I can do right now. All I can do is wait and see … That’s all I can do.”

“Targeting El Paso” examines how President Trump sought to portray the city as a winning argument in favor of his border wall, claiming that the construction of a border barrier there had made it one of the safest cities in America.

“My response was, yes, we are one of the safest cities in the country — but we had been before the fence went up. The fence had no direct impact on our overall crime rate,” El Paso Mayor Dee Margo (R) tells FRONTLINE. “I corrected the record from day one.”

RELATED: In Private Meeting, Trump Calls El Paso Mayor a “RINO” by Karen Pinchin Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism Fellowship, FRONTLINE

President Trump Calls El Paso Mayor a “RINO” in a Private Meeting

And finally, the documentary examines the growth of armed militias along the border in the El Paso region, and the relationship between President Trump’s harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric and the WalMart mass shooting.

“It was clear that in that manifesto there were things that had been said, by Fox News, by other politicians, and by the person with the biggest bully pulpit, the loudest voice in this country, the President,” U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-TX), of El Paso, tells FRONTLINE.

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A FRONTLINE production with Rain Media, Inc. The producer and writer is Marcela Gaviria. The co-producer is Brian Funck. The correspondent is Martin Smith. The executive producer of FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath.