Call Off Immigration Enforcement After Tragedies So Communities Can Heal (OPINION)

May 25, 2022
3:06 PM

Flowers and candles are placed outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Wednesday, May 25, 2022, to honor the victims killed in Tuesday’s shooting at the school. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Like other parents of elementary school kids, my mind has been drifting all morning, wondering what each student at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texaswas doing in the moments before they were shot and killed on Tuesday.

We know that at least one student, Xavier Lopez, was at an awards ceremony with his mom just a few hours before he was shot. Judging by what my nine-year-old son, who is also a Latino and also a “Lopez,” does during the school day, I would say at least one student was eating the equivalent of the black bean quesadillas I made my son this morning, before that kid was hit in the arm with a bullet.

I imagine other students were busy practicing their times tables, getting stuck on 7 X 8, when bullets pierced their legs. And I would bet money that someone was talking about Minecraft against the teacher’s wishes when one or more of them were hit by one of the killer’s 375 rounds of ammunition. Certainly, multiple kids were talking about when they’d go to the lake—it will hit 98 degrees in Uvalde on Sunday, after all.

I also wonder if they had time to think of anything else —that one final thought— before the bullets went through their teacher’s body and into theirs.

When I first found out about the shooting in Uvalde, I was pretty sure that Customs and Border Protection, commonly known as “Border Patrol” or “la migra,” would be on the scene. They are, after all, a law enforcement agency, and there is a Border Patrol station not far from the center of town.

As it turns out, not only were they at Robb Elementary School, but reports show that a Border Patrol agent was the first to arrive, killing the shooter after being wounded himself.

As a public health professor who has written extensively about the impact of immigration enforcement on immigrant communities, I know that healing under the threat of deportation is nearly impossible. Reams of evidence highlight the fear that extends from the interaction with the agencies who can deport you, causing undocumented immigrants to avoid health-preserving resources like the emergency room, healthcare centers, social services, and even maternal healthcare.

Even those who are not undocumented may similarly fear interacting with law enforcement for fear that officers might question the undocumented loved ones with them.

When I tweeted that the presence of Border Patrol at Robb Elementary School was likely to make undocumented parents hesitant to approach the school, I received many responses attempting to correct or nuance my statement. Nothing “sinister” is happening here, people told me. Border Patrol was only there as first responders. They know CPR.  They killed the shooter. They may even have children in the school. They live in Uvalde. Border Patrol can only enforce certain immigration laws—they aren’t ICE or the police.

These statements are true at face value, but also show a disconnect between what the public understands Border Patrol to be and what it’s really like to live in a community under the perpetual threat of deportation.

First, people rarely differentiate between the different departments whose agents might take you away from your family. The word I hear most often is just “policia,” even though I know they really mean ICE. The second-most term I hear is probably “patrulla,” or “patrol car,” with no distinction of which department owns the car, because it doesn’t really matter when they are taking you to detention.

Second, yes, there may be some good agents, heroic agents—even, in this case, agents who stop shooters from killing your children. But that doesn’t change the fundamental purpose of the agency —to enforce immigration law— nor people’s very logical, deeply ingrained reaction to it. One can be legitimately thankful that a Border Patrol agent killed a shooter who was slaughtering children and fully aware that the agent is paid to enforce immigration law through surveillance, arrest, and deportation.

In fact, that an agency can not only deport you but is also capable of killing a mass shooter, is probably not likely to make anyone trust the organization more. The agent who killed the shooter was reportedly part of the Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC), an elite Border Patrol unit trained to respond to high-risk incidents. Notably, BORTAC agents were sent to Portland to pacify those protesting police violence and were later investigated for pulling protestors off the street and into unmarked vans.

In times of tragedy, people need to be able to be with their families and communities and interact with the social and governmental support systems there to help them. In light of the tragedy, President Joe Biden and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott should say clearly that no one —regardless of immigration status— will be questioned when they come forward to receive support after the shooting.

I pointed out to my wife that some of the children who were shot were being taken to San Antonio and would be in good hands. We have some stellar military hospitals and healthcare centers in San Antonio, so there will undoubtedly be physicians capable of treating gunshots.

My wife sighed, looked at me, and asked if I thought they had experience treating bullet wounds in bodies this small.


William D. Lopez is a clinical assistant professor at the School of Public Health and faculty associate in the Department of Latina/o Studies at the University of Michigan. A Tejano of Mexican descent, he now lives and works in the midwest with his partner, children, and #pandemicpup. He is the author of the book Separated: Family and Community in the Aftermath of an Immigration Raid. Twitter: @lopez_wd