Column: Scapegoating immigrant victims of a mass shooting is just the start

Maria Rodriguez places flowers outside a home where a mass shooting took place.
Maria Rodriguez places flowers Tuesday outside a home in Cleveland, Texas, where a mass shooting took place.
(David J. Phillip / Associated Press)

There’s no such thing as too low for the right-wing propaganda machine.

Conservative commentators have been using the massacre of a Honduran family in Cleveland, Texas, to demonize immigrants, priming their audiences for an up-and-coming wave of anti-immigrant legislation in red states.

Fox News, National Review and other media outlets have been linking the murder of five people, including a 9-year-old boy, to the immigration status of the accused shooter, Francisco Oropesa, who was arrested Tuesday. Oropesa had been deported four times, according to immigration officials.

Opinion Columnist

Jean Guerrero

Jean Guerrero is the author, most recently, of “Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump and the White Nationalist Agenda.”

Research has consistently found that undocumented people are substantially less likely to commit violent crimes than people born in this country. But for years, the GOP has deceptively focused on the stories of outliers like Oropesa to encourage Americans to associate immigration with violence — to create the false impression that “bad hombres” are running amok.


It’s an old tactic, but it’s become more twisted. GOP leaders are maligning even the victims of the massacre. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott inaccurately described them as “illegal immigrants.” On Wednesday, a Breitbart story on the tragedy smeared the entire region, evoking a “hidden population of illegal migrants,” based on the opinion of a right-wing investigator who can’t speak Spanish but who visited a nearby area and concluded it’s a cartel town.

The manipulation fuels fear and hate among people who are then more likely to embrace anti-immigrant legislation, such as Florida’s Senate Bill 1718, which is about to bestow upon the state the nation’s worst, most draconian immigration laws. It will surely lead to copycat bills in other red states.

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The sweeping bill makes it a felony to give undocumented people rides, jobs or shelter — punishable by up to 15 years in prison. It requires hospitals to track patients’ immigration statuses; invalidates certain out-of-state driver’s licenses for undocumented people; and more. And last week, the Florida Legislature separately passed new limits on Chinese homeownership, reviving a form of anti-Asian discrimination that was used in the mid-19th century.

The cruelty isn’t confined to Florida. In Texas, lawmakers have introduced House Bill 20, which would encourage paramilitary activity against immigrants. Other states are sure to follow suit, ushering in a new phase of the GOP crackdown on immigrant communities — one that will surely make Trumpism look tame.

What enables this war is using the immigration status of people accused of crimes to indict all immigrants, even innocent people such as the shooter’s victims: Sonia Argentina Guzmán, 25; Diana Velázquez Alvarado, 21; Julisa Molina Rivera, 31; José Jonathan Cásarez, 18; and Daniel Enrique Laso Guzmán, 9.

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“That mass murderer wouldn’t have killed five people if that mass murderer wasn’t in the country,” right-wing media personality Mark Levin told Fox News’ Sean Hannity last week. He said nothing about the scores of mass shootings this year that did not involve immigrants.

In a segment about the massacre, Fox News’ Laura Ingraham aired a gruesome clip from “Breaking Bad” of a decapitated human head. Likening the real world to the show, she conjured a “trail of death along the border.” Media Matters for America has tracked many other incidents of right-wing media exploiting the killings to incite fear about immigrants.


But gun violence isn’t an immigrant problem. It’s an American problem. Even the guns used to kill people south of the border, displacing families and forcing them to come to the U.S., originate mostly from this country. If GOP leaders wanted to stop the flow of migrants fleeing violence in their home countries, they’d support regulations on U.S. gun manufacturers.

Instead, Republicans call for more border militarization, which has been shown to trap immigrants in this country when they might otherwise return home after working here awhile. They want more deportations, which are proven to fuel the very violence abroad that creates refugees. And to rally support for these self-defeating crackdowns, they create scapegoats.

Trump’s senior advisor Stephen Miller normalized large-scale demonization during his boss’ 2016 presidential campaign, inserting lurid descriptions of rare immigrant violence into his speeches. In the White House, he pressured officials to publicize lists of immigrant crimes. Many Republican leaders have adopted Miller-style scapegoating on steroids.

The delusions forged by this approach have consequences. They make immigrants more vulnerable to violence by mass shooters who see them as threats. And they inspire Republican lawmakers to pass legislation that persecutes immigrants and their loved ones, including U.S.-citizen children.

Florida Rep. Kiyan Michael, sponsor of the wide-ranging anti-immigrant bill, lost her son to a car accident in which she says the other driver was in the U.S. illegally. The grief of self-described “angel moms” like Michael is real. But sadly, they’re trying to prevent the loss of more life by demonizing (and thus endangering) a group of people who are disinclined to violence.

Decades of anti-immigrant legislation didn’t prevent the tragedy that took Michael’s son and it didn’t save the Honduran family in Cleveland, Texas.


Wilson Garcia, who survived Oropesa’s attack and whose wife and 9-year-old son were murdered, tried to describe his grief in an interview with Univision. “It’s like we’re alive, but at the same time not,” he said.

More inhumanity isn’t the answer to anyone’s grief. Scapegoating is a centuries-old tactic that serves only to preserve the status quo: one in which we’re turning against one another rather than tackling the root of our troubles.