EL PASO, Texas (AP) — A Texas man pleaded guilty Wednesday to federal charges accusing him of killing nearly two dozen people in a racist attack at an El Paso Walmart, changing his plea weeks after the U.S. government said it wouldn’t seek the death penalty for the hate crimes and firearms violations.
Patrick Crusius still faces a potential death sentence if he’s convicted on a state capital murder charge in the 2019 shooting that killed 23 people. He pleaded not guilty in the state case, but his lawyers said last month that he would enter a guilty plea to the federal charges.
Crusius, 24, surrendered to police after the massacre, saying, “I’m the shooter, ” and that he was targeting Mexicans, according to court records. Prosecutors have said he drove more than 10 hours from his hometown near Dallas to the largely-Latino border city and published a document online shortly before the shooting that said it was “in response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
His alleged statements echoed both the anti-immigration rhetoric of American politics and racist screeds put out by other mass shooters in the U.S. and abroad.
More than three years after the shooting, the description of an “invasion” on the U.S.-Mexico border by Republicans has continued in American politics, angering Democrats and immigrants rights groups.
From campaign stumps to hearings in Congress, Republicans have increasingly described high numbers of migrant crossings into the U.S. as an invasion threatening public safety and overwhelming border communities. Critics have condemned the characterization as anti-immigrant and dangerous in the aftermath of El Paso and other racially motivated attacks.
The Aug. 3, 2019, shooting happened on a busy weekend at a Walmart that is typically popular with shoppers from Mexico and the U.S. In addition to those killed, more than two dozen were injured and hundreds more were scarred by being present or having a loved one hurt.
Many of the dead and wounded were citizens of Mexico.
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott was criticized for a fundraising mailer dated the day before the attack calling on his supporters to “defend Texas” from immigrants entering the country illegally. He responded at the time by saying “mistakes were made” over the mailer, though did not elaborate or assign fault.
But Abbott has more recently embraced using the word “invasion” while authorizing a series of hardline immigration measures, including a letter to state police and the Texas National Guard in November with the subject line “Defend Texas Against Invasion.”
Abbott has defended his statements by saying he is invoking language included in the U.S. Constitution. Some legal scholars have called it a misreading of the clause.
“If this is not an invasion, what is it?” Abbott asked CNN’s Jake Tapper during an interview last month. “Think about the volume of people coming across the border.”
Abbott’s office did not return a request seeking comment Tuesday.
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Texas state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, a Democrat whose district is in South Texas, said the language needs to stop. “We are not at war here,” he said.
America’s Voice, an immigration reform group, said it tracked more than 80 Republican candidates during last year’s midterm elections who amplified what they called “invasion” and “replacement” conspiracies.
“I think it’s been creeping over the years,” said Zachary Mueller, political director of America’s Voice. “What I would say is that in 2021, there was a marked shift where it went from the fringes of the Republican Party into the mainstream of the Republican Party.”
A database of mass killings in the U.S. since 2006 compiled by The Associated Press, USA Today and Northeastern University shows that the number of deadly mass shootings linked to hate crimes has increased in recent years. Among 13 prominent instances, the 2019 Walmart shooting was the deadliest. The database tracks every mass killing — defined as four dead, not including the offender — in the U.S. since 2006.
Although the federal and state cases have progressed along parallel tracks, it’s unclear when Crusius might face trial in a Texas court because the state case has been disrupted by allegations of mistakes and misconduct against the lead local prosecutor.