Ugly immigration rhetoric has deadly consequences
Thursday night, two suspects were arrested and charged with the shooting of unarmed people in the West Texas desert earlier last week. According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, the suspects were in a pickup truck when they pulled over along a road near Sierra Blanca, Texas. One suspect allegedly fired shots that killed one migrant and injured another, a woman, who was taken to a hospital. The Texas Rangers are conducting an investigation, with the cooperation of federal authorities.
This incident is troubling on several levels. It reflects the fact that inflammatory rhetoric can have deadly consequences. This type of violence is the logical, tragic outcome of dehumanizing and demeaning migrants.
Reporting by the New York Times says that a small group of migrants were walking along a roadway when they stopped at a water tank. As a pickup truck approached, the migrants tried to hide. One of the men in the truck shouted profanities at the migrants, according to their testimony in court documents. Then the driver got out of the truck and fired shots before driving away. The two suspects later said that they had been out hunting birds and animals. Neither of the suspects, the Times noted, went back to see whether their shots had struck anything. Leaders of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) have denounced the shootings as “open season on Hispanics.”
Unfortunately, this kind of news is not surprising. For months now, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has been running ads about the dangers of illegal immigration and using words like “invasion.” In July, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick likened unauthorized border crossings to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Both Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have contributed to the ongoing dehumanization of migrants by sending them around the country as though they were props in a political game.
Meanwhile, “Replacement Theory” conspiracies have made their way from the far-right fringe into mainstream media and politics. The notion that whites are being replaced by minorities and immigrants is not an uncommon conservative belief. A poll by the Associated Press in December found that nearly half of Republicans agree to at least some extent with the idea that there’s a deliberate intent to “replace” native-born Americans with immigrants.
Against this political backdrop, it’s no wonder that we are seeing episodes like the shooting and killing of migrants. When people are viewed as less than human, they become more vulnerable to abuse and violence. How sad that people who have likely endured trauma leaving their home countries in search of a better life cannot feel safe within our borders.
What’s especially disturbing is that we have been here before. Racist, incendiary rhetoric has been linked to the mass shootings in a Pittsburgh synagogue and an African American church in South Carolina. In August 2019, a gunman motivated by the fears of a “Hispanic invasion” of Texas targeted and killed 23 Latinos at an El Paso Wal-Mart.
True, the migrant victims of the shooting may have been in the country unlawfully. That doesn’t warrant an extra-judicial death sentence.
Being in the U.S. without authorization is generally not a crime (it is a civil violation), while unlawful entry is a misdemeanor. No person — not even a law enforcement officer — has the right to act as judge and jury and attack suspected undocumented migrants.
And consider that the alleged shooter served as the warden of the West Texas Detention Center, a private prison (his employment has since been terminated). In 2018, Texas law clinics and an immigrants rights group accused him of overseeing and participating in of abuse of African migrants in that facility, charges the groups documented in a special report.
While the alleged attackers of the Texas migrants have been charged with manslaughter, the Department of Justice should also investigate this episode as a possible hate crime. If found guilty, the suspects deserve the harshest penalties possible. Such grotesque vigilante behavior cannot go unpunished.
The mindset that views migrants as dangerous invaders may be as pervasive as it is corrosive. But justice must be served — because no person deserves to lose their life over their perceived immigration status.
Raul Reyes is an immigration attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors. A graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School, he is also a contributor to NBCNews.com and CNN Opinion. You can follow him on Twitter at @RaulAReyes, Instagram: raulareyes1.
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