Abbott spokesperson voices 'regret' for tweet critics say 'dehumanizes' mass shooting victims

Brandon Bell/Getty Images, FILE

(CLEVELAND, Texas) -- After Texas GOP Gov. Greg Abbott faced backlash for what critics called an effort to "dehumanize" the victims of a mass shooting in his home state over the weekend, a spokesperson appeared to walk back Abbott's remark in a statement to ABC News on Monday afternoon.

The spokesperson claimed federal authorities had told "the state of Texas" that the shooting suspect and victims "were in the country illegally" but that they have since learned at least one of the victims "may have been in the United States legally" -- and that they "regret" if the information was an incorrect distraction.

"Any loss of life is a tragedy, and our hearts go out to the families who have lost a loved one. Following the horrific shooting on Friday night, federal officials provided the state of Texas information on the criminal and the victims, including that they were in the country illegally. We've since learned that at least one of the victims may have been in the United States legally. We regret if the information was incorrect and detracted from the important goal of finding and arresting the criminal," Renae Eze said in the statement.

In an earlier tweet on Sunday announcing a $50,000 reward for the at-large suspect, Abbott called the five victims of Friday's attack "illegal immigrants," leaving many on social media to question why he used language they consider dehumanizing toward immigrants.

In a statement on Sunday, Abbott said, "Our hearts go out to the families and loved ones of the five victims that were taken in this senseless act of violence."

The victims of the brutal attack in Cleveland, Texas, were identified by authorities as Sonia Argentina Guzman, 25; Diana Velázquez Alvarado, 21; Obdulia Molina Rivera, 31; Jose Jonathan Casarez, 18; and Daniel Enrique Laso Guzman, a 9-year-old boy, according to his father and school district officials. All are originally from Honduras, police said.

Police say the suspect -- still at-large -- used an AR-15-style rifle in the attack, which began late Friday, to kill the five family members. Two of the female victims were discovered in the bedroom lying on top of two surviving children, authorities told ABC News. Three minors in total were found uninjured but covered in blood.

Jefrinson Josué Rivera, partner to Velázquez Alvarado for the last six years, told ABC News in a phone interview Monday that she was a lawful permanent resident, not an undocumented immigrant as Abbott had initially claimed.

In Spanish, he said the governor was "inhumane" for referring to the victims, all friends or relatives of his, in this way.

Through tears he described how he wants his loved one to be remembered: "She was warrior, she gave everything for her children. She never had issues with anyone. She was happy, humble and caring. She was so attentive to her children, her friends, and to me."

He also said he has a question for Abbott: "Why do they discriminate against immigrants so much. In what way are we affecting him? What harm have we caused him? He's making his living and we're here to make our own? We don't care if he wants to make his money through politics, we're here to make an honorable living."

Reacting to Abbott's tweet late Sunday, Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, said he showed "a disgusting lack of compassion and humanity."

"If loosening gun laws actually made us safer, Texas would have one of the best records in the country on gun violence," she said in another tweet. "In this country so awash with firearms, you can't go to grocery stores, church, schools, or even your neighbor's house now without fear. It's the guns."

Texas state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, who represents Uvalde -- where, one year ago this month, a gunman killed 19 fourth graders and two of their teachers -- called Abbott's framing a "new low."

"Greg, how was an undocumented person able to obtain an AR-15 in the first place? I'll tell you why. It's because you and other Republicans have made safe gun laws nonexistent," Gutierrez tweeted.

The Hispanic Congressional Caucus also weighed in, accusing the governor of trying to "dehumanize & delegitimize the lives of those killed in this horrific attack."

Charlie Sykes, a conservative commentator and editor-in-chief of the website The Bulwark, called it "extraordinary" that Abbott "felt the need to do that."

"This cried out for a little bit of compassion, for some leadership. Of course, we got neither of those," he said Monday on MSNBC.

"Star Trek" Actor George Takei, who was imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp for a year and a half, was one of the first on the chorus of critics to call Abbott's response "despicable."

"I would have thought bringing up the immigration status of the innocent victims of this senseless violence would be beneath even you. But I was wrong," he tweeted.

Meanwhile, the manhunt for suspected gunman Francisco Oropesa, 38, is still underway.

Investigators said carnage at his hands began Friday night after neighbors asked him to stop shooting his gun in the yard of his home in Cleveland, Texas, about 50 miles north of Houston. When deputies arrived at the home, they found five victims at the property, San Jacinto County Sheriff Greg Capers told reporters on Sunday. Abbott also said in his tweet that Oropesa is "in the country illegally."

The gruesome, mass shooting follows a series of attacks gun safety advocates argue illustrate the need for stricter gun laws across the country.

ABC News' Peter Charalambous, Meredith Deliso and Nadine El-Bawab contributed to this report.

Monday, May 1, 2023 at 3:18PM by Libby Cathey and Armando Garcia, ABC News Permalink