After Backlash, Abbott Expresses Regret After Labeling Shooting Victims ‘Illegal Immigrants’

May 1, 2023
5:36 PM
Originally published at The Texas Tribune

Gov. Greg Abbott addresses the House floor on the opening day of this year’s legislative session at the state Capitol in Austin, Texas, on January 10, 2023. (Evan L’Roy/The Texas Tribune)

By PATRICK SVITEK, The Texas Tribune

AUSTINTexas Gov. Greg Abbott expressed regret Monday after facing intense criticism for labeling all the victims of the Cleveland, Texas shooting rampage on Friday as “illegal immigrants,” even though it appears at least one of them was not undocumented.

Abbott’s office issued a statement Monday afternoon that suggested unnamed “federal officials” provided mistaken information indicating that all five victims were in the country illegally. Since Abbott’s initial comment Sunday, evidence has surfaced that one of the victims was a permanent legal resident of the United States.

“We’ve since learned that at least one of the victims may have been in the United States legally,” Abbott spokesperson Renae Eze said in the statement. “We regret if the information was incorrect and detracted from the important goal of finding and arresting the criminal.”

The statement did not address criticism that Abbott’s language focused on the victims’ immigration status instead of the victims and their families, though Eze noted: “Any loss of life is a tragedy, and our hearts go out to the families who have lost a loved one.”

Abbott made the initial comment in a news release Sunday that announced a $50,000 reward for information about the shooter, who remained on the run after the Friday massacre. Authorities say 38-year-old Francisco Oropesa killed five of his neighbors, including a nine-year-old boy, with an AR-15-style rifle after one of them asked him to stop firing shots in his yard so their baby could sleep.

Abbott’s news release said the shooter was a fugitive “who is in the country illegally and killed five illegal immigrants.”

Authorities have said the victims were all from Honduras but have not disclosed their immigration status. The local county sheriff, Greg Capers of San Jacinto County, said Sunday that he did not care about the victims’ immigration statuses and felt a duty to protect everyone in his county.

Abbott tweeted a copy of his news release, which drew condemnation from across the country for its focus on the victims’ immigration statuses over the loss of life.

Influencer and activist Carlos Eduardo Espina responded to Abbott with a picture of an identification card of one of the victims, Diana Velasquez Alvarado, showing she is a permanent resident of the United States. Espina, who describes himself on Twitter as a “community organizer and immigrant rights activist” from College Station, said he spoke with the victim’s husband, who provided the photo of the ID. Law enforcement identified her as Diana Velazquez Alvarado.

“There is no limit to the depravity of Greg Abbott and his Texas Republican cronies,” Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement. “To use a mass shooting, in which five innocent souls were slaughtered execution-style —including an eight-year-old— to fearmonger and lie about migrants and the victims’ immigration status… this type of sick behavior is truly beyond the pale.”

Shooting victim Daniel Enrique Laso was originally identified as being eight years old, but family members said he was nine.

This was not the first time Abbott has claimed that information he initially shared about a deadly tragedy in Texas was wrong due to the fault of others. Last year, Abbott said he was “misled” about what happened in the Uvalde school massacre after he originally praised the law enforcement response.

Democratic lawmakers, immigrant rights activists and gun control advocates weighed in on Abbott’s “illegal immigrants” comment Sunday, calling Abbott heartless for making a point to mention the victims’ immigration statuses.

“[Abbott], you are a low life a–hole,” tweeted Fred Guttenberg, an outspoken activist and father of a victim of the 2018 Parkland, Florida school shooting. “This shooting has nothing to do with immigration status and much to do with your policies. On behalf of those like my daughter who are victims of gun violence, F—K YOU!!!”

Rodolfo Rosales Jr., the Texas state director for the League of United Latin American Citizens, said in a statement that LULAC “firmly believes that every human being, regardless of their immigration status, deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.”

Abbott’s fellow Republicans were mostly quiet on his choice of words. Instead, they focused on the immigration status of the suspect, Oropesa, who had been in the country illegally and deported five times previously, according to Fox News, which cited a source with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. CNN later reported that Oropesa had been deported at least four times but said his current immigration status was unclear.

After state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, tweeted that Abbott’s news release was a “new low,” Texas GOP Chair Matt Rinaldi responded: “The illegal alien was able to get a gun because policies [Gutierrez] supports allowed him in the country after he was deported multiple times.”

Abbott’s comment took a different tack than the sheriff who responded to the mass shooting.

“My heart is with this eight-year-old little boy,” Capers told reporters Sunday. “I don’t care if he was here legally. I don’t care if he was here illegally. He was in my county. Five people died in my county, and that is where my heart is—in my county, protecting my people to the best of our ability.”

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