Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
Democrats and immigration rights advocates are condemning Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick for describing immigrants crossing the border as an “invasion” this week, calling the rhetoric “dangerous” to Latino communities while pointing out that it mirrors language used by the accused El Paso shooter two years ago.
“We are being invaded,” Patrick said at a press conference Wednesday afternoon about Abbott’s border wall plans. “That term has been used in the past, but it has never been more true.”
Abbott said Wednesday that “homes are being invaded” as he announced the state would be spending an initial $250 million to construct a barrier at the state’s southern border with Mexico. He repeated the sentiment at a signing ceremony for several gun bills Thursday, saying property owners along the border are being “invaded.”
“State leaders disavowed this kind of language after that racially motivated massacre, but now that the bodies are cold, here we go again,” said state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso. “The border isn’t a political football. There are no invaders here — only people.”
Neither Abbott’s nor Patrick’s office responded to requests for comment.
U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, condemned Abbott’s and Patrick’s remarks in a tweet shortly after the Wednesday border press conference.
“If people die again, blood will be on your hands,” Escobar wrote.
The 2019 shooting at the El Paso Walmart, which left 23 people dead, is described as one of the deadliest anti-Latino attacks in recent U.S. history. Within hours of the shooting, law enforcement officials had found a message from the alleged gunman saying the attack was “in response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
Abbott denounced the attack as domestic terrorism and the act of a white supremacist. He also appeared ready to soften his own rhetoric about immigration, saying after the shooting that “mistakes were made” in using language in a fundraising letter that called to “defend” the Texas border. It was published a day before the El Paso shooting.
“Unless you and I want liberals to succeed in their plan to transform Texas — and our entire country — through illegal immigration, this is a message we MUST send,” Abbott wrote in the fundraising appeal.
After the shooting, Abbott emphasized conversations he’d had with El Paso officials discussing “the importance of making sure that rhetoric will not be used in any dangerous way.”
“I did get the chance to visit with the El Paso delegation and help them understand that mistakes were made and course correction has been made,” he said, referring to the language used in the fundraising letter.
Mario Carrillo, an immigrant rights activist who grew up in El Paso, said there was no excuse for officials like Abbott and Patrick to repeat the language this week, given their conversations after the El Paso shooting.
“They can’t claim ignorance and say they didn’t know this language could potentially lead to violence because it happened before,” he said. “I wish elected officials thought more about their words because those words have consequences. Are there others that read or listen to remarks like that and think, ‘Well, I don’t want our country to be invaded, so I’m going to take things into my own hands’?”
The repetition of the word “invasion” to describe immigrants is similar to messaging employed by former President Donald Trump. Out of 64 rallies he attended where he discussed immigration, Trump used the term at least 19 times. He also used words such as “killer,” “criminal” and “animal” to refer to immigrants, according to an analysis from USA Today shortly after the El Paso shooting.
Patrick linked immigrants to future criminal behavior at the Wednesday press conference. He hypothesized about what would happen to a 14-year-old boy who comes from Central America, doesn’t speak English and is behind in school.
“What does he do when he comes to America? They just let him go free,” Patrick said. “You can’t put a 14-year-old in a fifth grade class. What is his future? Crime, low wages. No future.”
State Rep. Lina Ortega, D-El Paso, said making those kinds of comparisons diminishes how integral immigrants are in the U.S. and the role they play in helping the country’s economy grow. She said she thinks Abbott and Patrick owe Texans an apology.
“We are basically being slapped in the face and being placed in the category that we don’t deserve to be in,” Ortega said. “I mean we are productive citizens of the state of Texas.”
State Rep. Art Fierro, D-El Paso, said that kind of language incites violence, such as the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol earlier this year.
“This is exactly what happens when you fire up people and get them believing that the words coming out of your mouth are not political, but they’re really what you believe,” Fierro said.
With so much attention on border communities, Carrillo said he fears elected officials could be placing the citizens of other border towns at risk.
“When I think of what happened in El Paso, the shooter didn’t ask for citizenship status on the people he killed,” said Carrillo, a naturalized citizen who is campaigns manager for America’s Voice, an immigrant rights group. “People along the border, the vast majority are going to be Latino, so I don’t know how they’re going to differentiate. Something like El Paso could unfortunately happen again if we continue down this path.”
Disclosure: Walmart has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Correction, July 6, 2022: Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly said seven people of Mexican descent were killed by a gunman in El Paso in 2019. Of the 23 people killed by the gunmen who was targeting Latinos, eight were Mexican nationals and two victims had dual Mexican and U.S. citizenship.