On Friday, a man in Cleveland, Texas, killed five of his neighbors after they complained about him firing an AR-15 on his property late at night. On Sunday, with the shooter still at large and “zero leads” as to his whereabouts, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced that the victims weren’t so innocent either.
Law enforcement officers were searching for a “fugitive who is in the country illegally,” Abbott said in a statement promoting a $50,000 reward for any information leading to his capture. The gunman, Francisco Oropeza, had “killed five illegal immigrants in a shooting Friday night.”
I’ve announced a $50K reward for info on the criminal who killed 5 illegal immigrants Friday. Also directed #OperationLoneStar to be on the lookout.
I continue working with state & local officials to ensure all available resources are deployed to respond. pic.twitter.com/SpkUgKqKGe
— Greg Abbott (@GregAbbott_TX) April 30, 2023
That Oropeza is not a legal resident is not the most pertinent detail in a story about a guy shooting a high-powered firearm in his yard, and then shooting the people who asked him to stop. But it’s pretty obvious what Abbott is going for; Republicans and plenty of Democrats have spent years depicting undocumented residents as a violent and criminal class threatening peaceful communities. It is a cheap shot and a particularly disingenuous one at that; the common denominator of gun violence is not immigration status, it’s guns.
But using the same pejorative to describe the victims in the statement is particularly grotesque. Abbott was wrong on the facts—at least one of the people who died, Diana Velasquez Alvarado, had a green card. But it would be just as execrable if he weren’t. It was one final, dehumanizing insult, reducing their still-unburied bodies to the misdemeanors that some of them, perhaps, once committed—all in service of his political project. Even in death, they’re told they don’t belong here.
For Abbott, this is part of a longer story of prioritizing political messaging over the dignity of the deceased. One day before a man obsessed with stopping a “Hispanic invasion” of Texas killed 23 people at an El Paso Walmart in 2019, Abbott sent out a fundraising email asking for help to “DEFEND” the border and echoing right-wing tropes about immigrants. He later told reporters that “mistakes were made” and, in a meeting with a group of El Paso legislators, “emphasized the importance of making sure that rhetoric will not be used in any dangerous way.”
But that promise proved to be short-lived. Fear of an invasion from across the border has been a potent message in Texas for a long, long time, and in the ensuing years, Abbott, instead, leaned into the rhetoric he once forswore. As the Texas Tribune reported in 2022:
In letters to the state’s county judges and President Joe Biden, Abbott has described the record number of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border as an invasion. In a memo to the Department of Public Safety and the National Guard urging them to step up their border security efforts, he used the subject line “Defend Texas Against Invasion.” And on social media, he declared that he “invoked the Invasion Clauses of the U.S. & Texas Constitutions” to justify his border efforts.
Last year, after a former ICE detention center warden allegedly shot two migrants in the West Texas desert—killing one—an Abbott spokesperson said that the episode was “just another example of how President Biden’s open border policies continue endangering lives.” In other words, the migrants shouldn’t have been able to get that far.
Abbott hasn’t yet apologized for his most recent smear. If history is any indication, a display of contrition doesn’t mean much. By defining everyone involved by his rough guess as to their immigration status, he is attempting to Other not just the victims, but the shooter as well. But if the circumstances were grim, they were hardly unfamiliar. What could be more American than being shot by your neighbor?
Update, May 1: An Abbott spokesperson now says “we regret if the information was incorrect”:
New statement from @GovAbbott’s office: “We've since learned that at least one of the victims may have been in the United States legally. We regret if the information was incorrect and detracted from the important goal of finding and arresting the criminal.” pic.twitter.com/4miadxWsxC
— Patrick Svitek (@PatrickSvitek) May 1, 2023