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Abbott’s immigration rhetoric criticized again after interview response about shooting migrants

By Uriel J. García, The Texas Tribune

Abbott’s immigration rhetoric criticized again after interview response about shooting migrants” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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During a radio interview last week, Gov. Greg Abbott said that Texas has used every tool to control the border short of ordering officers to shoot migrants crossing over illegally, once again drawing concerns about the potential impact of his rhetoric around immigration.

“The only thing that we’re not doing is we’re not shooting people who come across the border, because of course, the Biden administration would charge us with murder,” Abbott said during the Jan. 5 radio interview with Dana Loesch, a former editor at Breitbart News and spokesperson for the National Rifle Association.

His comment came after Loesch asked Abbott: “But for the people who don’t live in border states, explain the hierarchy and the process. Like what can be done like right up to the line, where maybe they would come and say, ‘Governor, you’re breaking the law, we got to arrest you for trying to enforce the law at the border.’ Like what is the maximum amount of pressure that you as governor can implement to protect the border?”

Abbott responded: “We are using every tool that can be used, from building a border wall to building these border barriers, to passing this law that I signed that led to another lawsuit by the Biden administration, where I signed a law making it illegal for somebody to enter Texas from another country. And they’re subject to arrest and subject to deportation.

“So, we are deploying every tool and strategy that we possibly can,” Abbott continued. “The only thing that we’re not doing is we’re not shooting people who come across the border, because of course, the Biden administration would charge us with murder.”

Abbott didn’t respond to emailed questions from The Texas Tribune on Thursday asking for clarification on the comment. Texas Democrats immediately raised alarm after the comment was shared on social media by Heartland Signal, a Chicago-based website tied to the WCPT radio station.

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, replied to the social media post, saying: “I can’t believe I have to say ‘murdering people is unacceptable.’ @GregAbbott_TX. It’s language like yours that left 23 people dead and 22 others injured in El Paso.”

Abbott has been previously criticized for his rhetoric on immigration. The day before 23 people died in a 2019 mass shooting in El Paso at the hands of a gunman who railed about a “Hispanic invasion” in a document published online, Abbott’s campaign sent out a two-page fundraising mailer that spoke in alarmist terms about the need to defend the border.

“The national Democrat machine has made no secret of the fact that it hopes to ‘turn Texas blue.’ If they can do it in California, they can do it in Texas — if we let them,” Abbott wrote in the fundraising appeal.

Though only U.S. citizens can vote, the governor signed off with another pointed warning: “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.”

At the time, Abbott said that “mistakes were made,” and after meeting with El Paso lawmakers, he “emphasized the importance of making sure that rhetoric will not be used in any dangerous way.” But he has used that “invasion language” multiple times since the shooting, including in the interview with Loesch.

Last week’s comments came as concern continues to grow around the language Republican politicians are using when they discuss immigration. Former President Donald Trump said last month that immigrants were “poisoning the blood” of America, words that the Biden campaign pointed out were similar to language that Adolf Hitler used about Jews in his manifesto “Mein Kampf.” Trump later said he didn’t mean the words that way, and that he didn’t know Hitler had said that.

Any discussion of shooting migrants at the border is particularly sensitive after Michael Sheppard, a former warden of an immigration detention center, was accused of shooting at a group of 13 Mexican immigrants who had crossed the Texas-Mexico border through the desert. One migrant was killed and another was wounded in the shooting, which happened in September 2022 in Hudspeth County, east of El Paso.

Sheppard, along with his brother Mark, were released from jail on bond and each face charges of manslaughter and aggravated assault.

Abbott has been particularly aggressive in his approach to the border in recent years. He has deployed the Department of Public Safety and the National Guard to the region to boost security. And he recently obtained $1.5 billion from the Legislature to build more border barriers.

In December, he signed into law a bill that would make it a state crime to cross the border between a port of entry into Texas and allow police officers to arrest people they suspect crossed the border illegally.

Immigrant rights organizations, El Paso County and the U.S. Department of Justice have filed two separate lawsuits asking a judge to prevent the state from enforcing the new law, which is scheduled to take effect in March.

Abbott has said the state actions are necessary because the Biden administration is not doing enough to secure the border, noting that border crossings are on the rise in recent years.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/01/11/texas-border-migrants-greg-abbott-interview-shoot/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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