Governor criticized for 'disgusting' anti-immigrant email sent day before El Paso attack

Sam Levin in Los Angeles
Photograph: Eric Gay/AP

The day before a gunman in El Paso carried out the deadliest attack against Latinos in modern US history, the Texas governor sent out an anti-immigrant fundraising letter calling on Republicans to “DEFEND TEXAS NOW” and “take matters into our own hands”, according to news reports.

The 2 August letter from the governor, Greg Abbott, lamented that in “just three weeks in June, 45,000 illegal immigrants were apprehended crossing the Mexican border into Texas!” It continued: “That amounts to the entire population of Galveston – every three weeks. In just six months, we’d add the population of Arlington!”

“If we’re going to DEFEND Texas, we’ll need to take matters into our own hands,” Abbott wrote in the mailer, which was reported by the Texas Signal website. The Guardian has seen a redacted copy but not the original document.

The fundraising appeal echoed the xenophobic rhetoric of Donald Trump, who has spoken of an “invasion” of migrants into the US. It also echoed the language in the racist “manifesto” allegedly written by the 21-year-old suspect before he killed 22 people at a Walmart near the US-Mexico border. The suspect, who traveled from a Dallas suburb 600 miles away, said the mass shooting was a “response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas” in his hate-filled document.

In the weeks since the massacre, law enforcement officials across the country say they have thwarted similar white supremacist attacks and mass shootings from potential gunmen who espoused far-right and racist viewpoints. In El Paso, which is 80% Latino, residents have said that Trump’s escalating attacks on immigrants and racist campaign speeches have created a climate that encourages this kind of violence.

Abbott and other GOP leaders in Texas have also faced increasing scrutiny over their anti-immigrant language in the wake of the 3 August attack.

“Doing nothing will only lead to disaster for Texas,” the governor’s fundraiser letter said, adding of immigrants at the border: “How many are we NOT catching because of Washington DC’s inaction – and members of BOTH parties’ refusal to work with President Trump to secure our border?”

“It’s disgusting,” Manny Garcia, the executive director of the Texas Democratic party, said in an interview on Thursday. “They know exactly what they are doing when they are using this kind of language and using this racist rhetoric to energize their base. It’s really disturbing. It’s alarmist, it’s threatening, it’s hostile.”

David Stout, an El Paso county commissioner who represents the district where the tragedy occurred, said it was impossible to ignore the connection between the language of the governor and the suspect in the shooting, which is being investigated as domestic terrorism: “If the leader of the government in Texas is utilizing these types of words, and talking about defending our country and having to take matters into their own hands, that sounds to me like a call to folks to do exactly that.

“This is what this guy who came to El Paso from Dallas was trying to do. He was trying to defend what he thought he needed to defend, and to take things into his own hands,” Stout continued. “It’s really, really upsetting.”

Related: Police thwarted at least six mass shootings and white supremacist attacks since El Paso

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Abbott and other state leaders focused on mental health and other factors, downplaying concerns about access to guns and xenophobic hate speech. Abbott has previously tweeted that Texans should “pick up the pace” in buying guns and was supportive of the widely criticized effort by the Trump administration to deploy the national guard to the border last year.

Abbott’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment on Thursday.

When Abbott was asked about the president’s rhetoric at a recent town hall, he responded by repeating a Trump talking point about low unemployment rates among black and Hispanic workers, according to the Texas Tribune. The governor also created a taskforce to study extremism and domestic terrorist threats in the wake of the shooting.

Studies have repeatedly disproven key anti-immigrant claims by Trump, Abbott and others. Research has shown that immigrants do not take away jobs from US-born people, and El Paso has long been considered one of America’s safest cities. More than 23,000 people cross the border from its Mexican twin city, Ciudad Juárez, for work each day.

“Mexico is a part of the fabric of Texas. We should be proud of that,” said Garcia. “We’re a state of immigrants.”