Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

August 23, 2019; New York Times and Texas Tribune

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me.” It’s a lesson we teach children to help them avoid playground conflicts. But the cliché ignores the power of words to harm or the power of narratives to frame or mis-frame issues. Messages sent by the governor of Texas and other state leaders prior to the El Paso shooting sound ominously like the shooter’s manifesto. Do their words matter? That’s the question being raised in Texas.

Just days before the shooting, Texas Governor Greg Abbott sent a fundraising letter that, according to the New York Times, “described the large number of undocumented immigrants crossing the border into Texas, called out both parties for refusing to work with President Trump to secure the border, and warned that liberals were trying to transform Texas through illegal immigration and ‘turn Texas blue.’”

Doing nothing will only lead to disaster for Texas, both economically and politically.

As for the lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, as per the Texas Observer, he once described “undocumented immigrants as invaders,” and said the main problem Texans faced was “the silent invasion of the border. We are being overrun. It is imperiling our safety.” In the mid-2000s, when he was the host of a conservative talk-radio program, Patrick alleged the Democrats had manufactured a scheme wherein immigrants would flood into the country, where their millions of votes would let them seize control.

The shooter’s motives echoed these words, targeting Latinxs for their threat against what he saw as his white America. Greg Casar, who is a Latino member of the Austin City Council and whose district is nearly 70 percent Latinx, told the Times:

Our Texas lieutenant governor describes immigration as an “illegal invasion,” and the terrorist in El Paso said he was fighting the “Hispanic invasion.” When our leaders in Texas campaign on “Show Me Your Papers” laws, when they purge voter rolls—it’s not just a racist dog whistle. It’s a bullhorn.

To Miguel Solis, a school board member at the Dallas Independent School District, statements from public figures are of serious concern. As he explained to the Texas Tribune, “In today’s world, words are having more and more significant existential consequences in our society; a guy drove 10 hours with the intent of slaughtering Latinos.” To Mario Carillo of the immigration advocacy group America’s Voice, “It makes me feel like they don’t understand the issue. I’m concerned that the leaders in our state aren’t really willing to have the conversation about what it was that led to the shooting in El Paso in the first place.”

Hector De Leon, a chairman of the Associated Republicans of Texas, also sees this as a problem. He told the Tribune, “It’s easy to go out and shoot a bunch of ‘Mexicans,’ if you don’t view them as people. I think state leaders and national leaders cannot pander to the worst in human nature or the worst in their party; they can engage in rhetoric that shows we’re more than that. Instead of talking about invasions we need to talk about how we can make America a better place.”

For some, these concerns are just political posturing. Matt Mackowiak, chairman of the Travis County Republican Party in Austin, “found nothing offensive about the governor’s letter.” As he told the Times, “I read the mailer. I didn’t see anything in there that was objectionable.”

It’s possible to demonstrate that words matter. Just last week, Governor Abbott walked back the words in the fundraising letter, saying that “mistakes were made” by the El Paso delegation. Debating immigration policy doesn’t mean demonizing immigrants or dehumanizing those seeking safe harbor. Political messages motivate people to act. We shouldn’t be surprised when messages crafted to motivate through fear lead to tragedies.—Martin Levine