By Nicole Chavez, CNN
Authorities in Cleveland, Texas, placed large posters in Spanish around the city asking for help finding a man wanted for the killings of five people, but a lack of trust in law enforcement among some Latinos may be hindering those efforts, advocates say.
There is fear among some Latinos, particularly immigrants, that any contact with law enforcement can result in questions about their immigration status and potentially lead to deportation.
“Linking public safety with immigration status hurts everybody because in cases like this, it’s less likely that the Latino community would come forward if they think there’s a connection between law enforcement and immigration officials,” said Cesar Espinosa, executive director of the Houston-based immigrant rights group FIEL.
Five people, including a mother and her 9-year-old, were shot and killed in Cleveland, Texas, Friday by a neighbor who had been asked to stop shooting out in his yard because it was so close to where a baby in a neighboring house was sleeping, Wilson Garcia, whose wife and son were killed, told CNN.
Law enforcement has been searching for the suspect, Francisco Oropesa, for days and Border Patrol agents have been asked to be on the lookout in case he tries to escape into Mexico, a law enforcement source familiar with the investigation told CNN.
As Oropesa continues to evade capture, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott sparked an outcry by labeling the victims and the suspect “illegal immigrants” when he announced a reward for information leading to the suspect’s arrest.
“What would Jesus say to the mass shooting victims?” asked Domingo Garcia, national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, in a statement. “Governor Abbott’s words are unchristian. It is indefensible to any right-hearted Texan to use divisive language to smear innocent victims, including a … boy.”
Authorities have said the victims were all Honduran nationals but did not release further information on their status. On Monday, Abbott’s office said it appeared at least one of the victims was a permanent legal resident.
Though Oropesa’s current immigration status is unclear, he had entered the US illegally and been deported by immigration officials at least four times since 2009, said an ICE source who identified him as Francisco Oropesa Perez-Torres.
The shooting took place on Friday in Cleveland, a city of about 8,000 people northeast of Houston, where nearly 31% of its residents are Hispanic or Latino, according to the Census Bureau.
A 2021 study funded by the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, showed that Latinos who experience discrimination or “other forms of victimization” are reluctant to call the police and instead seek help from relatives, community members, or their church. The study’s sample included people living in the San Diego metro area, the Galveston and Houston metro areas, and Boston.
Espinosa said FIEL has encouraged law enforcement to employ community liaisons or to collaborate closely with advocates serving as mediators between residents and police.
“For cases like this, we should seek and want the full cooperation of the (Latino) community,” he said.
Maria Cordero, an immigration policy and advocacy strategist at the ACLU of Texas, said mistrust of law enforcement has resulted in communities living in perpetual fear, sometimes forcing them to change their daily routines or stopping them from seeking help from police or at hospitals.
A report published earlier this year by the organization shows that many people in the Rio Grande Valley, including US citizens as well as immigrants of all statuses, did not reach out to local police to report a crime due to concerns that police would call Border Patrol agents to the scene.
Cordero said that many victims of domestic violence do not call the police for help because they are worried it will lead to a negative encounter with Border Patrol agents. For her, those behaviors are often replicated across Texas and Latino communities in the US.
“Violent crime and mistrust won’t stop as long as law enforcement doesn’t fulfill their mission of protecting the community and preventing crime if they are focused on collaborating with federal agencies and doing a job that it’s not theirs,” Cordero said.
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