Backlash greets Abbott’s description of 5 shooting victims as “illegal immigrants"

Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.

Gov. Greg Abbott is facing intense criticism after labeling the victims of the Cleveland shooting rampage as "illegal immigrants."

Abbott made the 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 9-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 status 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 status over the loss of life.

One Twitter user, Carlos Eduardo Espina, responded to Abbott with a picture of an identification card of one of the victims, Diana Velazquez 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.

"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 8-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 8 years old, but family members said he was 9.

Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the backlash.

Democratic lawmakers, immigrant rights activists and gun control advocates all weighed in, calling Abbott heartless for making a point to mention the victims’ immigration status.

"[Abbott], you are a low life asshole," tweeted Fred Guttenberg, an outspoken activist and father of a Parkland, Florida, shooting victim. "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, FUCK YOU!!!"

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 8-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."

This story originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

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