SAN ANTONIO — Even before a gunman opened fire at an El Paso Walmart, Latino legislators had warned Texas Gov. Greg Abbott about his anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Almost three years since that tragic day that ended the lives of 23 people — and as Buffalo, New York, mourns the racially motivated shooting deaths of 10 people — Abbott’s election-year rhetoric and activities are coming under fire.
Since the El Paso shooting on Aug. 3, 2019, Abbott has erected his own border patrol force and built his own immigration detention system, he has been considering declaring the border under “invasion,” and he has called for denying education and baby formula to immigrant children, which are both required by U.S. law.
“It didn’t take him very long to be back on that same bandwagon of hate, the same bandwagon he is on today,” said Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, who represents El Paso in Congress.
Days before the Buffalo shooting, a gunman walked into a hair salon in Dallas and shot and wounded three people. Authorities are investigating it as a hate crime potentially connected to other shootings targeting Asian-run businesses.
The latest violence has renewed criticism of Abbott, who has remained quiet. Abbott’s state press office said he hasn’t commented on the Buffalo shooting. It didn’t respond to additional questions.
Domingo García, the president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said, “Gov. Abbott and the right-wing talk show hosts bear responsibility for their rhetoric of hate that produces killers.
“They need to tone that down to stop with the race baiting and scapegoating of others to get political points and to divide Americans,” García said.
Few who experienced El Paso have forgotten it, and the similarities of the shootings in El Paso and Buffalo have reinforced fears and sorrow that some have tried to bury or set aside.
Investigators allege that both suspects drove from out of town to target people of a specific race or ethnicity. Police said that when they arrested the El Paso suspect, he told them he was targeting Mexicans.
Online documents believed to be connected to each shooting cite the conspiracy theory known as the “great replacement theory,” which holds that Jewish people and Democratic elites are trying to “replace” white Americans with people of color through immigration policies, higher birthrates and other social transformations.
Texas state Rep. Mary González, D-El Paso, recalled that several Texas legislators had warned Abbott before the El Paso shooting about his rhetoric, which was similar to that used by former President Donald Trump.
After the shooting, Latino legislators slammed Abbott for sending campaign mailers dated the day before the attack that told supporters that “if we are going to DEFEND Texas, we’ll need to take matters into our own hands.”
After the campaign mailing became public, Abbott said “mistakes were made.” González said Abbott made a commitment not to use rhetoric that would incite violence or motivate hate or discrimination. “However, as we have seen very recently, that is no longer the case,” she said.
“You don’t have to look very far to point out Operation Lone Star and the rhetoric surrounding Operation Lone Star, as well as the policies implemented through Operation Lone Star, to see very real examples based on discrimination, based on race and national origin,” González said.
Abbott has stationed state law enforcement officers and Texas National Guard troops on the border under a program he calls Operation Lone Star, arresting people at the border, generally on enhanced trespassing charges, detaining them in former state prison units and prosecuting them. Hundreds have been ordered released after challenges by attorneys, immigration and civil rights groups.
In 2019, days after the El Paso attack, Abbott complained in a tweet about a Supreme Court decision that guarantees public education for all children regardless of their immigration status, drawing backlash.
This month, he revisited the issue, telling a radio talk show host it is time to challenge the Supreme Court ruling. On Friday, Abbott accused President Joe Biden of providing baby formula "to illegal immigrants coming across our southern border.” Providing food and shelter to migrants in custody is required under a federal lawsuit settlement.
'They don't live this threat'
Abbott’s critics say Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has been adding to the racist rhetoric. When thousands of Haitians requesting asylum were camped beneath a border bridge in South Texas, Patrick accused Democrats of allowing them to enter so they could become citizens and vote and so their children would “thank the Democrats and Biden for bringing them here.”
Those comments and Abbott’s remarks about baby formula for migrants are adding fuel to the fire, said state Rep. Claudia Ordaz Perez, D-El Paso, who was drawn out of her previous district by the new political map Abbott signed into law. Several Latinos are challenging the maps in court, saying they dilute Latinos’ voting rights.
“I think they just spew these talking points without any fear because they don’t live this threat,” Ordaz Perez said. “As a woman of color myself and then representing a community of color, these comments are scary — it’s resonating with people” who are carrying out violence.
The political rhetoric emboldens and mirrors some of what is written in the “manifestos” connected to the suspects in El Paso and Buffalo and in other mass shootings, particularly when it comes to the rhetoric of the “great replacement theory,” said Monica Muñoz Martinez, an associate history professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
“The governor has been campaigning. We are in a campaign season. He has been making racial appeals throughout the campaign, and that takes the form of the xenophobic rhetoric,” Martinez said.
Republican Adrienne Peña-Garza, the Hidalgo County party chair, said elected officials do need to try harder to unite the country and "remember why it's important for us to not further divide," adding, "Hatred is dangerous."
But she defended some of Abbott's recent statements as necessary "conversations."
"I live in Hidalgo County, on the southern U.S. border, and you know there is a lot of poverty here, so when you start to hear there's a shortage of baby formula because of not just inflation and it's taken a while to make things but also because, yes, you're giving it to a bunch of illegal immigrants and undocumented immigrants, these are all conversations that are hard to have," Peña-Garza said.
Peña-Garza said the media often inflame rhetoric. "I do have compassion for people trying to find a better way of life. There has to be a balance there, who comes first, and naturally, it should be your country," she said.
Abraham Enriquez, the president of Bienvenido US, a recently formed conservative group focused on Latinos, said in a statement that "liberal think tanks and politicians" have pushed for "weak borders and amnesty" hoping to tilt elections in their favor, adding that saying so isn't "espousing replacement theory."
But for Ordaz Perez of El Paso, the recent shootings have brought back fear — and a feeling that things haven't really changed.
“You had such a hateful crime happen in El Paso, Texas, and instead of adding protections to communities of color, and even when our law enforcement and our faith-based communities were standing against our permitless carry, the state of Texas still passed these," she said of Texas' new law allowing people to carry guns without permits. "Instead of adding protections, now anyone can walk freely over the age of 18 with a gun without any sort of training or license.
“It’s just a scary time. I’m not going to lie. It certainly brought back some really hurtful memories," Ordaz Perez said of the recent shootings. "And it’s just like, here we go again."