The national season of violence deepened with a weekend of tragedy in Texas that hit two of the rawest political divides, guns and immigration.
Horrific eye-witness testimony is emerging from the scene at an outlet mall in affluent Allen, Texas, where on Saturday afternoon a gunman armed with an AR-15-style rifle sprayed shoppers with bullets, killing eight people. It was the latest in a string of mass shootings in Texas and across the country that have killed many innocent people but have brought no action to end the cycle of loss.
Then, on Sunday, a driver slammed into a group of migrants waiting at a bus stop outside a shelter in the Texas border town of Brownsville. At least eight people were killed and close to a dozen injured. It was not clear whether the incident was an accident or intentional. In either case, the tragedy focused fresh attention on the plight of migrants and the controversy over their future.
The tragedies were unrelated. But both moments of aching sorrow took place against a backdrop of two of the nation’s most divisive issues, both of which are especially acute in Texas and which fractured national politics has failed to fix – mass shootings and a border crisis.
Suspicion of government runs hot in the Lone Star State. But it’s also an epicenter of an emerging political struggle between deeply conservative Republican leaders drawing power from rural areas and more liberal cities. It often appears to exemplify the extremes of American life. It has also had the misfortune of suffering a sequence of shootings, including in a school in Uvalde last year, a Walmart shopping center in El Paso in 2019 and a church in Sutherland Springs in 2017. Just last week, Texans were shocked by a mass shooting by a gunman who killed five people in Cleveland, which started when neighbors complained about a man firing a weapon in his yard.
Texas is also expected to be at the center of a different political storm this week with the expiration on Thursday of the Covid-era border restriction that has enabled the US to swiftly expel certain migrants. The anticipated end of the policy, which has been the primary border enforcement tool since March 2020, has already led to an influx of migrants, with fears about a surge after it’s lifted. Republican warnings of a foreign invasion by undocumented migrants have deepened a political vulnerability for President Joe Biden as the administration has struggled to counter claims of a border crisis.
But as in the case of mass shootings, there is little chance that the nation’s polarized politics will ease in order to offer the space for meaningful resolution. Comprehensive immigration reform failed several times under Republican and Democratic presidents and there is little agreement between or within the parties on how to mitigate the situation at a time when crime, violence and economic blight are exacerbating migrant flows from Central America toward the southern border.
Gun debate intensifies in Texas
The weekend put a spotlight on Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who has been criticized for mentioning the undocumented status of some victims of the Cleveland massacre, as well as his blessing for loosening lax gun laws. The Republican governor has also played a key role in politicizing the debate over migration, including by shipping migrants to liberal areas.
Abbott told Fox on Sunday that he was heading to Allen to offer condolences to bereaved families and posed a series of questions he said families wanted answered: “Why did this happen? Why did the gunman do this? How did this happen?”
Rather than considering the availability of guns, he appeared to suggest that some kind of deficiency in the national spirit amid increasing “anger and violence” might be to blame. “We have got to find a way in this country where we can once again reunite Americans … and come together as one big family,” Abbott said. “And in that regard, find ways to reduce violence in our country.”
But Democrats in Texas reacted to Saturday’s shooting by slamming Abbott for doing nothing to stop the killing sprees on his watch. State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer warned in a statement that it was “a choice to allow this nightmare of gun violence to continue.”
“An elementary school. A military base. A college. A theater. A church. A Walmart. A high school. And now a shopping outlet. House Democrats grieve today. We grieve for those families who lost loved ones in Allen, but we also grieve for all of our children that have to live in a state where they constantly live under the fear of being shot and killed.”
Biden also noted that the killer in Allen used the kind of AR-15-style weapon that he would like to see outlawed. “We need more action, faster, to save lives,” Biden wrote on Twitter.
Democratic state Sen. Roland Guttierrez, who represents Uvalde, told CNN that “our state is burning down because we have these guns in the hands of people that shouldn’t have them.”
But several Republicans, including Abbott, sought to use the proliferation of mass shootings to argue they were as much of a problem in Democratic states, where gun laws are often more strict, as in conservative ones were state legislatures are working to weaken firearms laws.
US Rep. Henry Cuellar, one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, told Fox that “people talk about just making the laws stricter. In states that are blue, very strict laws, you still get this type of mass shooting, so it does happen across the nation and we have to get to the bottom of this.”
There have been mass shootings in Democratic-run states like Michigan and California. Still, a study published last year by Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit organization that focuses on gun violence prevention, found a direct correlation between states with weaker gun laws and higher rates of gun deaths, including homicides, suicides and accidental killings.
The latest mass shooting in Texas came after a spree of such killings in schools, supermarkets, at community parades, a bank and places of worship nationwide. It happened with the country still processing a shooting at a medical facility in Atlanta last week that killed one woman and injured four others. There have been 200 mass shootings in the US so far this year just within the first five months of this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, which, like CNN, defines a mass shooting as one in which four or more people are shot, excluding the shooter.
Migrant deaths car tragedy
In the incident in Brownsville, which is close to the Rio Grande, police responded to a call around 8:30 am CT about a Land Rover that hit multiple people at a bus stop across the street from the Bishop Enrique San Pedro Ozanam Center, a nonprofit homeless shelter that has been helping house migrants.
Details were still being assembled late on Sunday night. The driver, identified as a Hispanic man, is being “uncooperative” with authorities, according to officials, and had given multiple names. Witnesses described seeing the driver ignore a red light, drive up on a curb and run over a group of people waiting at the bus stop. The shelter has been housing immigrants while they wait for more permanent housing.
But even though investigators are still unsure whether the crash was deliberate, one Democrat accused Republicans of fostering an environment that made migrants vulnerable.
“While the incident is still under investigation, there is no doubt that our state’s leaders are painting a target on migrants’ backs,” said Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa.
New controversy over migrants in Texas comes with the White House under heavy criticism from Republicans over border issues – an issue that has long caused political headaches for Biden, who just launched his 2024 reelection race.
The expiration of Title 42 will mean that border authorities will have to return to decades-old protocols at a time of unprecedented mass migration in the Western hemisphere. The consequences are likely to further strain the already brittle relationship between the Biden White House and the Abbott administration in Austin, which leaves little hope for cooperation between them.