On Sept. 17, near the town of Sierra Blanca in rural West Texas, ICE detention center operator Mike Sheppard and his twin brother Mark attacked a group of migrants walking through the desert. Mike saw the group on the side of the road, pulled over next to them, pulled out his firearm and proceeded to shoot at the group. He killed one migrant and injured another.
The Sheppards first claimed that they were looking for grouse, then changed their story to hunting javelina, or wild pigs. This would have been at 7 p.m. on a Tuesday evening, 20 minutes after sunset. They claimed that they did not know what they had shot and left to attend a local Water Board meeting. Survivors’ testimony tells a radically different story: After taking cover near a water tank, they heard men in a pickup truck shouting profanities in Spanish and telling them to come out. The truck revved its engine, then the driver leaned across the hood and fired two shots. One man was struck in the head and killed, and another woman was struck in the gut and wounded.
The attack is reminiscent of other lynchings that have taken place throughout the country such as the horrific killing of Ahmaud Arbery, in which two armed, white vigilantes murdered a Black man jogging by the side of the road.
Mike Sheppard’s actions are part of a larger pattern of violently racist and xenophobic attitudes embedded within U.S. immigration policy. The far right has weaponized immigration as a racist wedge issue. State governors like Greg Abbott of Texas, Ron DeSantis of Florida, and Doug Ducey of Arizona are militarizing their immigration policies while sending thousands of migrants to New York City and Chicago, effectively using immigrants as pawns in their political stunts. At the same time, they have also increasingly advocated for and celebrated vigilantism towards immigrants and people of color. The day after Sheppard’s attack, another man in West Texas, Erick Garibaldi, shot a migrant in the face.
Gilberto Hinojosa, a chair of the Texas Democratic Party, said in response, “This killing in West Texas is the direct result of Texas Republicans’ violent fearmongering of undocumented migrants. When you continuously use language like ‘invasion’ to describe what is happening at our border, the only logical conclusion is that you want migrants and asylum seekers to be treated like invaders.’”
Hinojosa is correct about the Republicans’ demonization of migrants. The Democrats, however, are also to blame for harsh border policies and the dehumanizing treatment of immigrants. Under the Biden administration in the past 11 months, more than two million immigrants have been arrested along the southern U.S. border. Biden claims to be implementing a “safe, orderly and humane” immigration system, but the number of migrant deaths is at an all-time high under the Biden administration.
Mike Sheppard, the shooter, has a history of allegations of violent, racist behavior. The light charges he has received so far are a slap in the face to his victims.
Sheppard was fired from his job shortly after the incident, but this is not the first allegation of racist violence that has been leveled against him. A 2018 report by a coalition of legal groups found that African detainees who were transferred to the facility endured “physical assault; sexual abuse; excessive and arbitrary discipline (use of pepper spray and solitary confinement) without cause; verbal insults, including racial slurs; dangerous and unsanitary conditions of confinement; and denial of medical and mental health care.” Sheppard himself was implicated in many of the abuses as were guards directly under his command.
The detention center has claimed that he had been fired “due to an off-duty incident unrelated to his employment.” Apparently, the many years of alleged on-duty incidents of violence directly related to his employment didn’t count in the eyes of the detention center.
The state of Texas has charged Sheppard with manslaughter, defined as “killing without malice.” Given Sheppard’s violent past, history of racist violence in his role as detention center manager, and the allegations that the brothers shouted profanities in Spanish before opening fire, it should be clear that this is in fact a hate crime.
Anything short of a first-degree murder conviction will be an insult to Sheppard’s victims and will signal to other vigilantes that they can commit lynchings with impunity.