A Texas man pleaded guilty Wednesday to federal charges of killing 23 people in a racist attack at an El Paso Walmart, amending his plea weeks after the federal government said it would not seek the death penalty for the crimes of hatred and violation of firearms laws.
Regardless, Patrick Crusius still faces a possible death sentence if convicted on a state capital murder charge for the 2019 shooting. He pleaded not guilty in the state case, but his lawyers said last month he would plead guilty to federal charges.
Crusius, 24, turned himself in to police after the massacre, saying, "I'm the one who shot," and confessed that the attack was aimed at Mexicans, according to court documents. Prosecutors have said he drove more than 10 hours from his hometown near Dallas to the Hispanic-majority border city and posted a document online shortly before the shooting that he said was "in response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas".
His alleged remarks echoed anti-immigration rhetoric in US politics and racist rants by other perpetrators of mass shootings in the United States and abroad.
More than three years after the shooting, Republicans continue to talk of an "invasion" on the US-Mexico border, infuriating Democrats and immigrant advocacy groups.
From campaign rallies to congressional hearings, Republicans are increasingly calling towering migrant crossings an encroachment on public safety and overwhelming border communities. Critics consider such statements to amount to dangerous anti-immigrant rhetoric, following the events in El Paso and other racist attacks.
The August 3, 2019 massacre occurred during a busy weekend at a Walmart that is popular with customers from Mexico and the United States. In addition to the dead, more than two dozen people were injured and hundreds more traumatized because they were present or a loved one was injured.
Many of the dead and injured were citizens of Mexico.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, came under fire for campaign material dated the day before the attack in which he urged his supporters to “defend Texas” from immigrants crossing the border illegally. At that time he responded by saying that "mistakes were made" in the writing of the material, but without giving details or blaming anyone.
But more recently, Abbott has been using the word "invasion" while authorizing tougher immigration crackdowns, such as a letter to the state police and Texas National Guard in November titled: "Defend Texas Against Invasion ”.
Abbott has defended his rhetoric, saying he is invoking terms used in the US Constitution. However, some experts say the governor is misinterpreting the relevant clause.
"If this isn't an invasion, what is?" Abbott said when interviewed by CNN journalist Jake Tapper last month. "Think about the volume of people that are crossing the border."
Abbott's office did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Texan state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, a Democrat whose district includes South Texas, says that kind of rhetoric has to stop. “Here we are not at war,” he pointed out.
America's Voice, an immigration reform group, said it documented more than 80 Republican politicians during last year's midterm election campaign referring to what they called "invasion" or "racial replacement" conspiracies.
“I think it's something that has crept into the language over the years,” said Zachary Mueller, America's Voice political director. “What I would say is that, in 2021, there was a marked shift in him moving from the radical periphery of the Republican Party to the mainstream of the party.”
A database of mass shootings in the United States compiled by The Associated Press, USA Today and Northeastern University since 2006 shows that the number of killings linked to hate crimes has been rising in recent years. Among 13 high-profile cases, the El Paso Walmart massacre was the deadliest. The database records all mass shootings, defined as four deaths, not including the attacker.
Although the federal and state cases have moved in parallel, it is unclear at this time when Crusius might face trial on state charges in Texas because the state case has been marred by allegations of misconduct and misconduct against the local prosecutor's office.