On social media, where hate and racist insults feed divisions in the United States on a daily basis, one crime has left many people unsure what to say.
On Sunday, 17-year-old Nabra Hassanen was returning to her mosque in Sterling, Virginia, with a group of friends after they broke their Ramadan fast, when Darwin Martinez Torres approached them from behind in his car.
According to media accounts, one of the young men in the group, who was on a bicycle, had a confrontation with Martinez, a 22-year-old Salvadoran. The incident infuriated Martinez, who drove his car onto the curb, then got out and chased the group with a baseball bat, beating Hassanen and taking her in his car. A few hours later, the girl's lifeless body was found nearby in a pond.
Fairfax police have attributed the murder to a “ road rage incident,” deciding not to investigate it as a hate crime. That has provoked criticism from Hassanen’s family and prominent members of the Muslim community, who argue that Islamophobia could have motivated the attacker.
However, the case took on new meaning Monday after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) confirmed that the accused is an undocumented immigrant. The agency has filed an application for his detention.
Media outlets were quick to respond. Infowars, the website linked to the 'alt-right' movement, used Martinez’s status to defend President Trump, who had been criticized for his slow response to the crime as well as for feeding anti-Muslim sentiment throughout his campaign and presidency: The president is being "held responsible for death his border policy may have prevented," wrote Infowars editor Paul Joseph Watson.
Breitbart and other conservative media close to Trump emphasized that the Salvadoran was an "illegal," while several Twitter users identifying themselves as supporters of Donald Trump have argued that the crime would not have occurred had Martinez not been in the United States. For them, this is new proof that Trump should build the wall and cancel DACA (some messages indicated that Torres was a beneficiary of the program, but an ICE spokeswoman denied this to Univision News).
That the alleged killer of a Muslim woman was a Latino immigrant brings to the fore two groups especially vulnerable to a surge of racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric in the United States. Experts say the country is experiencing the largest wave of hate incidents since the September 11 attacks.
And, despite the fact that police continue to deny that race was a factor in the crime, others have interpreted it as undeniably racially motivated. Muslim organizations are struggling with how to respond.
"To the extent that [this] is used by the right wing to attack the Hispanic community, we will reject that,” Ibrahim Hooper, Communications Director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), told Univision. “At a time when there is an effort to demonize Muslims and immigrants and other minority groups, everybody should stand together and reject this message and focus on the tragedy of this particular case.”
Hooper said the organization will call for reconciliation among minorities in the face of the revelation that Hassanen’s alleged murderer is Hispanic.
Others have taken the case as an opportunity to openly discuss racism by members of the Hispanic community. On Twitter, Cassandra recalled incidents of hate involving Hispanics, as well as cases such as George Zimmerman’s controversial killing of Trayvon Martin in central Florida 2012, or Jeronimo Yanez’s recent acquittal in the death of Philando Castile in Minesota. "We want to talk about being oppressed in this country, but consistently fail to check ourselves for how we engage in oppressive systems," she wrote.
Several studies show that immigrants commit fewer crimes than the American born, although Donald Trump has consistently associated this demographic with crime. But belonging to a minority group does not absolve anyone from committing racist acts. According to incomplete FBI statistics on hate crimes for the year 2015, Hispanics committed 182 of the 6,885 offenses motivated by race, religion, gender or sexual orientation of the victim.