May 3, 2023

IntelBrief: Texas Mass Shooter Captured as Governor’s Comments Feed into National Immigration Debate

AP Photo/David J. Phillip

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The suspect in a shooting on April 28 in Cleveland, Texas, that left 5 people dead, including an eight-year-old child, has been captured – it is the 174th mass shooting in the U.S. this year.
  • The shooting in Cleveland, Texas, comes almost a year after the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, as proposed gun measures languish in the Texas state legislature and show little progress.
  • In an initial news release, Texas Governor Greg Abbott labeled the victims and the suspect as “illegal immigrants,” drawing a torrent of outrage and accusations that he is politicizing the tragedy and attempting to appeal to the most extreme parts of his base.
  • Despite efforts to walk back parts of Abbott’s news release, partly due to inaccurate information, his comments feed into a common false narrative about the criminality of immigrants and are likely to provide fodder to far-right extremist narratives on immigration in the U.S. and abroad.

The suspect in a shooting on April 28 in Cleveland, Texas, that left 5 people, including an eight-year-old child, dead has been captured. The suspect, identified as Francisco Oropesa, was armed with an AR-15 style rifle and is accused of committing the “execution style” shootings in his neighbors’ home after he was asked to stop shooting his gun in the front yard. Wilson Garcia, a survivor of the shooting in which his wife and son died, stated that he called the police five times about his neighbor’s actions, but before their arrival, Oropesa entered the neighbors’ home reportedly filled with 15 people for a church retreat and began shooting. The San Jacinto County sheriff, Greg Capers, attributed the delay to limited law enforcement covering a large swath of territory, detailing that when authorities did arrive, they found a horrifying scene with victims “shot from the neck up, almost execution style.” Oropesa had been at large since the shooting but was captured on May 2 in the town just 17 miles from Cleveland, according to reports by CNN and NBC News. According to data from the Gun Violence Archive, the killings mark the 174th mass shooting, defined as when four or more victims are involved, in the U.S. this year – so far.

The recent mass shooting in Cleveland, Texas comes just under a year after the mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, which resulted in the murders of 19 children and two adults. In April, during an understandably emotional hearing, parents whose children were killed in the massacre pled with state legislators to pass stricter gun laws. Proposals that were already languishing, for measures such as raising the age to purchase semiautomatic rifles from 18 to 21 years old, were given their first hearing. The legislation nonetheless appears likely to stall, as Republican leaders in Texas have not announced any other intention to consider or vote on the proposed gun measures before the session ends this month. In the aftermath of the Uvalde shooting, Texas Governor Greg Abbott told the victim’s families that he would not support their calls for stricter gun laws, suggesting that the proposal to raise the age to own an assault weapon would be unconstitutional.

Despite some initial openness in the wake of past mass shootings to consider gun measures, Texas lawmakers have steadily loosened restrictions on carrying firearms in recent years. In August 2019, 23 people were murdered by a terrorist motivated by anti-immigrant and racist beliefs at an El Paso, Texas Walmart. Yet the next legislative session in 2021, the Texas Legislature passed a bill that allows Texans to openly carry a handgun without a permit. The pervasiveness of firearms and gun violence is in many ways a uniquely American problem. Data from the Smalls Arms Survey estimates that in the U.S. there are 120.5 firearms per 100 residents, the highest ratio in the world and over two times the amount of the second-highest country, Yemen. Firearms are now the leading cause of death for children in the U.S. and the gun death rate is much higher than in most other nations, particularly developed countries. Countries that have high gun ownership or hunting cultures, such as Switzerland and Australia for example, which are often accompanied by higher-than-usual gun ownership rates, rarely experience mass shootings.

In the wake of the mass shooting in Cleveland, Texas, Governor Abbott announced a reward for capturing the suspect in a news release, stating that the fugitive was “in the country illegally” and that he “killed five illegal immigrants.” He drew a torrent of outrage for the comments, with critics accusing Abbott of dehumanizing victims by focusing on their immigration status. Law enforcement has not confirmed the citizenship status of the victims. The governor’s office has since walked back the statement, with his spokesperson, Renae Eze, stating they have “since learned that at least one of the victims may have been in the United States legally.” The suspect, Francisco Oropesa, has entered the U.S. illegally and been deported by immigration officials at least four times, according to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) source. His current immigration status is unclear, and it is not known how long he has been in the U.S. since he was last deported.

Despite the governor’s attempts to walk back the comments, the invocation of the victims’ and suspect’s immigration statuses was seen by many critics as an attempt to appeal to the most extreme parts of his political support base. A common, false narrative about the criminality of undocumented immigrants, such as claims that undocumented immigrants drive up crime rates, has been promulgated by far-right voices from alt-right radio host Alex Jones to former Fox News personality Tucker Carlson to former President Donald Trump. A multi-year study conducted using data from the Texas Department of Public Safety showed this narrative to be overwhelmingly false – relative to undocumented immigrants, U.S.-born citizens are two times more likely to be arrested for violent crimes, 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes, and over four times more likely to be arrested for property crimes. Although this and other studies have consistently shown crime rates to be lower among immigrant communities, far-right extremists have continued to promote the narrative that immigrants breed crime, often doing so in the context of the larger national immigration debate and galvanizing their base. Amidst a growing humanitarian and security crisis at the U.S. southern border – with a historic surge of migrants attempting to cross into the U.S. – far-right leaders and personalities are likely to utilize the recent shooting as “proof” that increasingly restrictive measures, such as those often proposed by Governor Abbott, are necessary. Yet, as previous U.S. crackdowns on asylum seekers have shown, limiting legal pathways for migrants exponentially increases demand for smugglers and human traffickers, adversely impacting national security. With the suspect of the mass shooting now in custody, the immigration status of the victims and the shooter provides fodder for far-right extremist narratives and disinformation on immigration and undocumented migrants and distracts efforts to address the actual tragedy and the proliferation of senseless gun violence in the United States.