EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Fifteen House members have joined U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, in calling for the Department of Justice to investigate a shooting that left one migrant dead and another one injured Sept. 27 near Sierra Blanca, Texas.

Two Hudspeth County residents, brothers Mark and Michael Sheppard, are facing charges of manslaughter in connection with the incident. But family members of the victims from Durango, Mexico, migrant advocates, and some lawmakers suspect the shooting was premeditated and a hate crime against immigrants. They want additional charges.

“We understand that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is assisting with this incident. We urge the (Department of Justice) to take concrete steps to ensure that this incident is investigated as a hate crime, especially considering Michael Sheppard’s history of racism and abuse toward immigrants,” Escobar and 15 other lawmakers said Thursday in a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland.

Michael Sheppard was a former warden at a private immigration facility in Sierra Blanca cited in a 2018 report by Texas A&M University, the University of Texas, and the nonprofit RAICES for the alleged physical abuse of 80 African detainees. The migrants alleged being punched, pepper-sprayed, denied medical care and subjected to verbal insults and racial slurs.

Mike Sheppard, left, and Mark Sheppard.

Mark Sheppard told the Texas rangers his brother discharged a shotgun twice while they were out riding a truck near Sierra Blanca on the evening of Sept. 27, but said they thought it was a javelina, according to the arrest affidavit. A group of migrants traveling with the victims told federal officials said they had stopped for water at a reservoir and heard someone using foul language telling them to come out.

“This attack on a group of migrants stopping for a water break is just the most recent manifestation of the rising racist and xenophobic sentiment for those who have come to the United States seeking a better life,” the lawmakers said in their letter.

A state manslaughter charge carries a penalty of between 2 and 20 years in prison if convicted, according to the Texas Penal Code. Someone convicted of a federal hate-crime resulting in loss of life can spend the rest of their life in prison.

Long-time El Paso activist Carlos Marentes questions why the brothers were charged with manslaughter and not murder.

“When attacks against migrants are not punished, that sends a message that some human beings are worth less than other human beings,” said Marentes, executive director of the Border Farm Workers Center in El Paso. “That shows impunity; that encourages further acts of violence against migrants.”

Marentes said he is concerned that the continuous anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from conservative politicians could lead to more attacks.

The lawmakers’ letter chastises politicians who have embraced anti-immigrant rhetoric that “dehumanizes” people crossing the border without proper documents.

Marentes agrees with that assessment.

“This is the result of verbal violence stemming from electoral competition. Some people are encouraged to believe that migrants are criminals, that they need to be kept out somehow,” he said.

Marentes is also calling on the Biden administration to take a different approach when it comes to migrants from Mexico. The reason the victims, identified by family members as Jesus Ivan Sepulveda Martinez and Brenda Berenice Casias Carrillo, were in the brush near Sierra Blanca is that Mexicans are being excluded from the parole other economic migrants are being granted by U.S. authorities.

“We have a crisis of violence next door, especially in the rural areas. Even in Juarez we see this, and yet we refuse to recognize that there is violence in Mexico much worse than in other countries,” Marentes said. “I think we should have an immigration reform that is fair, that goes beyond giving some people from certain countries a temporary permit and denying it to others who are fleeing much worse conditions.”

He said the people fleeing drug cartel violence in Mexico have as much or more credible fear of harm in their country than those in Central America and elsewhere.