AUSTIN, Texas — In the wake of the El Paso domestic terror attack, lawmakers and Democrats, many of them Latino, are slamming language used by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in a tweet and a fundraising letter as anti-Hispanic and anti-immigrant.
On Friday, members of the state’s El Paso legislative delegation and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus condemned Abbott's language on a Twitter thread in which Abbott said the state has been forced to pay for the education of "illegal immigrants."
“Our community is trying to heal from racially driven violence. This hurts. It is dangerous,” the El Paso state lawmakers tweeted individually from their accounts.
The caucus went further, saying the "attack on a child's right to an education is immoral and infuriating, regardless of citizenship status", and said Abbot has "demonized" the immigrant community "since day one" and "fueled the widespread hate towards our Latino family."
The backlash over Abbott's tweet comes the day after the governor held a roundtable on the El Paso attack that left 22 people dead. Abbott said helping El Paso heal, particularly its children, is a priority. It also comes amid outrage over a fundraising letter dated the day before the Aug. 3 attack. In it, Abbott decries illegal immigration and calls on supporters to "DEFEND Texas."
In the United States, children cannot be turned away from schools based on their immigration status after the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Plyler v. Doe, which Abbott mentions in his tweet. The case originated in Tyler, Texas.
El Paso sits on the Texas border and some of its students come legally from its adjoining city Juarez, Mexico. Not all are undocumented.
Abbott’s office did not respond to NBC News’ requests for comment. In public comments after Thursday's roundtable, Abbott struck a different tone. He said the roundtable in Austin and another planned Aug. 29 in El Paso are intended to find ways for "rooting out hateful ideologies."
“We know you feel you are attacked as human beings. We want you to know that we as Texans come shoulder to shoulder and side by side with you, as one family working together,” he said.
James Dickey, Republican Party of Texas chairman, said it's an "absurd stretch to argue that language like 'defend Texas' can be construed by any sane person to mean 'go murder people.'"
Political mailing stirs controversy
Abbott’s political mailer, which was provided to NBC News by the Texas Democratic Party, told supporters that “if we’re going to DEFEND Texas, we’ll need to take matters into our own hands.”
After citing immigration apprehension statistics and criticizing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Abbott warned of a plan by liberals to “transform Texas — and our entire country — through illegal immigration.”
Police said the gunman who opened fire on an El Paso Walmart told them his target was “Mexicans," and that he posted an anti-Hispanic and anti-immigrant screed that stated the attack was a “response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
The screed also states Democrats are trying to “enact a political coup” by opening borders and legalizing millions of new voters to transform Texas from a Republican-controlled to a Democratic-controlled state.
U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, whose district is El Paso, criticized Abbott for his letter in a tweet Thursday.
“If Greg Abbott ever wonders why there is so much hate and anger toward Mexicans and immigrants, he should take a long look at his rhetoric, policies and now his mailer,” she said.
Texas Democrats blasted the governor's letter Thursday in a news release that was issued while Abbott was holding the roundtable. They said the language in Abbott’s letter is the sort that fueled the hatred of the suspected shooter.
“It’s long past time for Republicans to eradicate white supremacist language from their discourse — people are dying,” Democrats said in the statement.
Rep. Rafael Anchía, chairman of the MALC, listed actions Abbott has taken as governor and the state's attorney general regarding immigrants, including supporting Arizona laws that give law enforcement officers more power to investigate individuals' citizenship status.
Anchía called on the governor to end the rhetoric, his mailers and "anti-immigrant policies."
"All Texans, including the Latino community, should feel safe in their home. Governor Abbott is instead doing the exact opposite by promoting fear," Anchía said in a statement.
Members of El Paso’s delegation said they raised the issue of anti-Latino and anti-immigrant rhetoric with the governor, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, and other participants in the Austin roundtable.
Texas Rep. Cesar Blanco, D-El Paso, said after the meeting there was consensus that the El Paso attack was an atrocity that happened to Latinos, that it was racially based and that "a racist white nationalist" did the attack.
State Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, the House Speaker pro tem, said Thursday there was a “very poignant” moment during the discussions when a participant said that “language matters and it matters more when it's (from) leaders in our state.”
“I think that point was made very clearly,” he said.