Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) is responding to the recent mass shooting that targeted Hispanics by creating a domestic terrorism task force stacked with officials who have pushed for policies to crack down on immigration.
The task force, announced Wednesday, aims to ramp up monitoring of the state’s white nationalist groups. But Texas is a majority-minority state and only two of the committee’s 15 named members appear to be people of color.
The gunman who killed 22 people and injured two dozen more in El Paso earlier this month carried out the attack after reportedly writing a screed blaming Mexican migrants for carrying out an “invasion” of Texas, and calling upon others to imitate his actions. He could face domestic terrorism charges, as well as the death penalty in Texas.
Immigrants’ rights groups and some Democrats say Abbott has chosen the opposite of the types of people who should head a task force charged with ramping up policing of white nationalists targeting immigrants.
“It’s discouraging that Gov. Abbott’s task force to address domestic terrorism only includes one Latino member and ... [that] state officials who have run for office on similar anti-immigrant rhetoric that was at the heart of the attack on El Paso will also be members of the task force,” said Mario Carrillo, the Texas state director for immigrant rights group America’s Voice. “Their policies have attacked Latinos and immigrants in the state, and there is little faith that they would have our community’s best interest in mind.”
Manny Garcia, the executive director for the Texas Democratic Party, praised Abbott for acknowledging that Texas faces a problem with racially motivated violence. But he said the governor should recruit more Democrats, domestic terrorism experts and people of color. The governor’s office did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
“This was white nationalist terrorism and Gov. Abbott needs to diversify the people whom he listens to,” Garcia said in a statement. “The task force lacks any real form of diversity. As it stands, it is composed of only law enforcement individuals and Republicans ― the same Republicans who have been fanning the flames of white supremacy and criminalizing immigration for political profit for years.”
Abbott charged the new task force with conducting a statewide intelligence assessment of the domestic terrorism threat level, creating new teams to monitor the actions of extremists, and upping the number of state police special agents that investigate neo-Nazi and white nationalist groups. The task force will meet quarterly, starting Aug. 30.
“Our top priority is to keep Texans safe in their communities,” Abbott said in a statement announcing the new body. “Part of that mission is to combat domestic terrorism and root out the extremist ideologies that fuel hatred and violence in our state.”
The task force will be led by the state’s top Republicans, including Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton. All of them have championed a surge of state police troopers at the border that has burned through more than $2 billion over the last five years, according to the Texas Observer. All three of them also supported Senate Bill 4, a 2017 state law that bans so-called sanctuary policies that limit cooperation between immigration authorities and local law enforcement.
More recently, they backed a state-led effort to remove thousands of naturalized immigrants from the voter rolls, contending without evidence that unauthorized immigrants might be casting illegal ballots. Multiple lawsuits forced Abbott’s administration to abandon the purge.
The fact that backers of the 2017 anti-sanctuary law are part of the mix is particularly concerning, said Claudia Muñoz of the criminal justice reform group Grassroots Leadership. Abbott should instead investigate how the law “has contributed to the culture of hate and how it can be repealed as quickly as possible,” she said.
“The governor should actually listen to communities impacted by white supremacist violence, instead appointing a panel exclusively made up of law enforcement, including people who have actively implemented policies targeting immigrants and people of color,” Muñoz said.
U.S. Attorney for Western Texas John Bash was also named to the task force. Bash, whose district encompasses El Paso, said earlier this month that the mass shooting there meets the definition of domestic terrorism.
As the top federal prosecutor for West Texas, Bash also played a role in presiding over the Trump administration’s experiment with family separations at the border last year, overseeing prosecutions for illegal entry that routed migrant parents into federal jails while their children were left in the custody of immigration officials. (Bash began dismissing those cases after Trump walked the policy back with a confusing executive order.) After his swearing-in ceremony last year, Bash described violent crime as his office’s second priority, after immigration enforcement, according to the San Antonio Express-News.
Despite its focus on identifying homegrown extremists, the task force includes unidentified members of Customs and Border Protection, the agency charged with policing ports of entry.
Carter Smith, the executive director of the state’s Department of Parks and Wildlife, will also join the team. The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request to explain what role Parks and Wildlife would play on a domestic terrorism task force, though the department’s game wardens currently contribute to the state’s immigration enforcement efforts in isolated border areas.
“These are absolutely the wrong people to address the issues — the real issues are about access to guns and white nationalism,” Tom Saenz, the president of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told HuffPost.
“I guess it’s a strategic attempt to distract people from the issues,” he said. “And you do that by staffing your task force with people who have no relationship to the issues or, in some cases, are on the other side of the issues.”
This article has been updated to note that Bash also took the step of dismissing cases after Trump’s executive order.