U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, is asking the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the killing of a migrant in Hudspeth County as a hate crime.

Mike Sheppard, then a warden of an immigration detention center in Sierra Blanca, Texas, and his twin brother Mark Sheppard are accused of shooting two migrants on Tuesday, killing one and injuring another. The victims were getting water and standing alongside Farm-to-Market Road 1111, southeast of El Paso, when they were shot, according to the arrest affidavit written by a Texas Ranger. 

The brothers were arrested on suspicion of manslaughter and booked into El Paso County Detention Facility on Thursday. 

A probable cause affidavit submitted by Texas Ranger Juan Torrez states that the shooting took place at about 7 p.m. Tuesday when a group of immigrants stopped to drink water out of a reservoir at Fivemile Tank, which is south of Sierra Blanca and about 90 miles east of El Paso.

Mike Sheppard

As a vehicle began to pass the group, the immigrants took cover to avoid being detected, the affidavit states. The vehicle then backed up and the driver fired two shots from a firearm at the immigrants before fleeing the scene.

One of the immigrants was struck in the stomach and was transported to the hospital. Another immigrant was fatally struck and died at the scene, the document states.

During interviews with federal agents, the immigrants stated they overheard one of the men shout something in Spanish to the effect of, “Come out you sons of bitches, little asses!” according to the affidavit. 

A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security confirmed the victims were among a group of 13 undocumented Mexican immigrants, including a juvenile. The injured woman is in stable condition in a local hospital, according to a statement.

Homeland Security Investigations El Paso is working with U.S. Border Patrol, FBI, Texas Rangers, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Hudspeth County Sheriff’s Office to pursue all investigative leads concerning the shooting, as well as state murder charges and any other potential federal crimes, according to the DHS statement.

During a Friday press conference, Escobar said that if she does not hear from the Justice Department about its plans, she will likely ask her congressional colleagues to sign a letter pushing the federal agency for a hate crime investigation.

Mark Sheppard

“Just based on the public reporting, based on the history of one of the killers, alleged killers – this to me smacks of a hate crime,” Escobar said.

Mike Sheppard was the warden of the West Texas Detention Center, a for-profit operation in Hudspeth County which has been used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain immigrants.

In 2018, an immigrant rights group reported that officials at the West Texas Detention Center had abused about 80 African men who were detained there for a week. Under the leadership of Mike Sheppard, detention guards subjected the immigrants to a slew of alleged abuse – beatings, pepper spray, racial taunts and sexual abuse, The Intercept reported.

A Louisiana-based company, LaSalle Corrections, runs the West Texas facility, as well as other jails, prisons and immigration detention centers. Mike Sheppard was “terminated due to an off-duty incident unrelated to his employment,” a spokesperson for LaSalle Corrections told The Texas Tribune on Thursday.

Escobar on Friday reiterated what she has said in the past, that Republican politicians describe immigrants in a way that motivates “people who have hate in their heart.” This language is dangerous and encourages violence, she said. 

Escobar noted the Aug. 3, 2019, shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, where a gunman killed more than 20 people in an alleged hate crime. Prior to the shooting, the alleged gunman ranted about the “the Hispanic invasion of Texas” in a manifesto.

“Migrants fleeing persecution in their home countries should not have to fear for their lives here,” Escobar tweeted on Thursday. “I’m devastated by this news out of Hudspeth County. Time and time again inflammatory, demonizing Republican rhetoric turns into action.”

Priscilla Totiyapungprasert is a health reporter at El Paso Matters and Report for America corp member. She previously covered food and environment at The Arizona Republic. You can follow her on social...