LA JOYA, November 1 - Two veteran Rio Grande Valley lawmakers have issued their first detailed statements about the killing of two unarmed Guatemalan immigrants by a Texas Department of Public Safety sharpshooter from a helicopter.
State Sens. Eddie Lucio and Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa made their comments ahead of a news conference and vigil being held today at the scene of the killings by immigrant rights groups.
Lucio, a Democrat from Brownsville, says he is “ashamed” that a state agency was involved in shooting unarmed immigrants from a helicopter. In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, Lucio called for a federal investigation to see whether DPS broke the law.
“There has got to be a better way of curbing illegal immigration than shooting them dead. I am ashamed, and I use that word without reservation, that our state agencies are involved in this type of activity,” Lucio said.
“If the immigrants were unarmed and were driving along a dirt road and people were shooting at them from the air, it is just unconscionable. It is beyond me how anybody could be so cruel. Something as sacred as human life, it is just inexcusable what has happened.”
Two unarmed Guatemalans were killed last Thursday. Six passengers, all believed to be undocumented, were traveling in a truck on a rural gravel road north of La Joya when they were shot at by a Department of Public Safety sharpshooter pursuing them in a helicopter. According to Texas Park and Wildlife, its wardens suspected the truck was carrying illegal drugs and called DPS for help.
DPS agents arrived and instigated a chase. DPS called in a helicopter and a DPS sniper opened fire on the truck from the helicopter. According to reports the helicopter was about 450 to 600 feet away from the truck when the shots were fired. According to reports, the two men that were killed were lying in the truck’s bed, clearly visible to the sniper and not dangerous. No drugs were found in the truck. The DPS sniper has been placed on 'administrative leave' and the Texas Rangers have started an investigation.
Lucio said he wants to learn all of the facts in the case before jumping to conclusions. However, he said questions must be asked of the legality of DPS using sharpshooters from helicopters to kill or injure undocumented immigrants.
“I am not a lawyer but this action could be illegal. I want to see if that is the case. Are we acting, our state agencies, within the law by shooting people down because they crossed the border illegally. Do we have that right, morally or legally? Those are the questions I want to ask,” Lucio said.
Lucio said having Texas Rangers investigate the killings is inappropriate because this unit is part of DPS.
“This is an international issue. It is not a state or a local issue. These are what everyone calls illegal aliens. I think the federal government needs to investigate this incident to the fullest. I would certainly support that effort,” Lucio said.
“I want justice brought on behalf of the victims. Quite frankly there needs to be full-fledged investigation by the Justice Department to see if the State of Texas was out of line and whether the officers responsible should stand trial for killing innocent lives.”
The news conference and vigil is being held at 2 p.m. today by the RGV Equal Voice Network, a coalition of non-profits that assist immigrants and work in the Valley’s colonias. It is being held near the site of the shootings, north of the town of La Joya, at the intersection of FM 2221 (Jara Chinas Road) and Mile 7 Road.
Lucio said he could not attend the vigil but is with the Equal Voice group in spirit.
“We have gotten so far away from being any kind of good neighbor. It hurts my heart to think it could have been one of my family members had I lived in one those Central American countries. They were just trying to help their folks back home stay alive. We take it for granted some of the things we are able to have here,” Lucio said.
“We cannot fault human beings for wanting to travel wherever they need to. Jesus Christ and his family were migrants. They fled to Egypt because they were being prosecuted and people were being killed because they were after that particular baby. I think you know the story there.
“I cannot believe we are shooting people from the air instead of apprehending them the way we should and taking them into custody. I am not for illegal anything but I also value life no matter who it is or where they come from.”
La Joya is in state Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa's district. Hinojosa, a Democrat from McAllen, has often cited his success in securing millions of state dollars so that state agencies such as DPS can carry out border security work.
"My prayers go out to the families who have lost loved ones in this unfortunate incident,” Hinojosa told the Guardian, in a written statement. “At this time we still do not know all the details surrounding the pursuit of a truck involved in human smuggling and the death of two undocumented immigrants at the hands of DPS sharpshooters.”
Hinojosa said he wanted to reserve judgment on the shooting until all the facts are known.
“It is tempting to jump to conclusions and demand immediate justice, but our responsibility is to withhold judgment as we seek answers and gather all the facts -- there should be video and tape recordings of the incident,” Hinojosa said. “We will pursue a full investigation and make appropriate changes to policy and procedure where appropriate and necessary.”
Hinojosa added that he hopes this “tragedy” will act as a spur for immigration reform.
“I would like to add that for years veteran law enforcement along the border have asked for a work visa program that makes sense, so they can focus their attention on the wannabe drug kings and cartel leaders, not those risking their lives so they can build a better life for their families,” Hinojosa said. “It is my hope that this tragedy will also serve as a siren call for the desperate need for immigration reform in our country.”