The man who crashed into a group of mostly Venezuelan migrants in Brownsville, Texas, on Sunday — killing eight of them — sounds in the media like a cipher, if not a monster. A video of the collision shows his vehicle knocking people down like matchsticks. A reporter I know told me that human gore and bone lay in the grass for hours afterward, putrefying in the heat and reeking. On Democracy Now!, a human rights activist called the killings a hate crime.
The driver was identified as George Alvarez. The police charged him with manslaughter, and they are investigating whether he committed hate crimes or acted intentionally. During a press conference, Brownsville Police Chief Felix Sauceda pointed to a list of Alvarez’s numerous criminal priors. One was “assaulting a public servant.”
Sauceda failed to clarify that it was Brownsville police who assaulted Alvarez years ago, not the other way around. For contesting that false claim in court, Alvarez was once considered a civil rights hero. (More about this later.) Meanwhile, the narrative around the killings has ignored details about history and current conditions in Brownsville — about animus against people like Alvarez that spans generations. That hostility may bode badly in the coming weeks and months, in Texas and throughout the country as we reach the end of Title 42.
Title 42 is an obscure regulation that allows the U.S. to turn back people at borders during public health emergencies. Former President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant Rasputin, Stephen Miller, revived it in 2020 during the Covid crisis, to keep people from applying for asylum. President Joe Biden has since used it to excuse his administration’s fear of aggressively crafting policy to help millions of asylum-seekers from South and Central America to move north to safety. On Thursday night, the rule expired. With its end and without robust federal assistance to help settle an anticipated wave of refugees, local communities are susceptible at worst to murderous hostility fueled by the right, and at best to pathological indifference.
The canary in the coal mine for these risks might be the chokehold. We’ve heard much about it lately in New York City, following the fatal strangulation of Black subway entertainer Jordan Neely, who had a history of mental illness, by white former Marine Daniel Penny, assisted by other riders. We’ve heard less about the chokehold’s use against people like Alvarez, in Texas.
Brownsville is an antique city. Downtown, it looks Caribbean the way New Orleans does, with French Quarter-style architecture dating from the 19th century. True to its appearance, the city’s history is Southern. It served as a cotton-smuggling port for the Confederacy during the Civil War, and a monument to Jefferson Davis stood in a park until 2020.
The city is 94 percent Latino, mostly Mexican American. Its poverty rate is over twice the national average. It is filled with Border Patrol and ICE agents, who take these jobs because they pay well over twice the local per capita income. In Brownsville, almost every Mexican American has a relative who is an immigration agent.
I lived there during the Trump administration. I reported on endemic dehumanization of poor people by law enforcement, and not just against immigrants. In the whirlpool of my nice gym in a nice part of town, I used to hear muscled men and well-coiffed women joke about this injustice, particularly when it came to migrants. A small crew of local rights activists resisted this generalized nastiness, but they barely made a dent.
I knew about the Ozanam Center, a nonprofit shelter for unhoused people and the site of Sunday’s tragedy. The eight migrants were staying there before they were killed. It’s been operating for decades. When I first moved to Brownsville to do reporting on immigration, an activist suggested that I go to Ozanam and offer some Hondurans $20 an hour plus lunch to help unload the moving van. I did so. After that, I heard nothing about the place. It was low key and out of the way.
Ozanam lies on the corner of Houston Road, which, along with nearby Travis and Crockett roads, are named after leaders of the 1835 Texas independence war with Mexico. Historians now concur that the rebellion was started by U.S. Southerners eager to import their Black chattel into Texas — where importation was illegal because Mexico owned Texas, and Mexico outlawed slavery.
Crossing Houston Road is Minnesota Avenue, not far from Iowa, Indiana, and North Dakota avenues. Midwestern whites migrated to Brownsville in the early 20th century and leveled the Latino ranching economy, replacing it with agribusiness fruit and vegetable farms. Along with their crops, they institutionalized the segregation of Mexican Americans, whom they derided as mixed-race “mongrels.”
Today, Alvarez lives in this neighborhood, where the houses near Ozanam are cramped and run-down. A friend who knows the area calls it “a very sad place.”
As a ninth-grade special-education student in 2005, Alvarez was arrested on suspicion of burglarizing a vehicle. He’d just turned 17 and, according to a later court filing, already was having problems with substance abuse. In his cell, he became frustrated about a broken phone and banged it. An officer who weighed 200 pounds threw 135-pound Alvarez to the ground and put him in a chokehold, with other officers assisting, the filing states. Alvarez was then charged with assaulting a public official, a major felony.
The incident had been captured on video, but the recording was never given to internal investigators. In a legal complaint he filed years later, Alvarez said he had feared that if he went to trial he would be convicted on the officer’s word and given a long sentence. Still a minor, he pleaded guilty and agreed to eight years of probation. Within months, he’d lapsed into drug addiction and violated probation. He was sent to state prison for eight years.
A few years later, according to court documents, another man, accused of the same crime by the same officer, found the recording of his own stay in detention, which proved the officer had lied and perpetrated the assault himself. Alerted that recordings existed, Alvarez demanded and received his and discovered the same lie. A judge ordered him freed after four years of hard time. He sued the city of Brownsville in federal court, a jury awarded him $2.3 million, and his case was listed in the University of Michigan’s National Registry of Exonerations.
But Brownsville appealed the decision, and the case went to the notoriously conservative 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in New Orleans. Judges there overturned the jury’s verdict, reasoning that prosecutors do not have to reveal exculpatory evidence if a defendant pleads guilty. Alvarez’s lawyer went to the Supreme Court, which in 2019 declined to consider the case. Alvarez was denied a financial win that might have changed his life.
According to his lawyer, he now works at an industrial sandblasting company and has six children. But he is covered with tattoos that mark a brown man on the border as a lumpen, a pariah. He’s had additional arrests for driving while intoxicated and for assaulting other people, though most charges have been misdemeanors and most have been dismissed. He seems angry if not broken.
On Tuesday the Brownsville police said that toxicology tests were still being done on Alvarez, but early findings documented cocaine and marijuana in his system, as well as benzodiazepines — the ingredient in Valium, Xanax, Ativan, and Klonopin. These are highly addictive sedatives used to treat conditions including anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, and bipolar disorder. They alter reflexes and can make driving dangerous. High doses of cocaine can cause agitation, paranoia, aggression, and dizziness.
At about 8:29 on Sunday morning, Alvarez was driving a mile from his home. He ran a red light and barreled into the migrants. He himself was injured, and witnesses said he seemed disoriented. Some survivors kicked and beat him as he yelled anti-immigrant epithets. In subsequent interviews, some migrants cited these slurs as evidence that Alvarez committed a hate crime, and the press has pushed that narrative. Yet police have presented no evidence that Alvarez was motivated by hate, and none of his insults surpass the border shit talking I used to hear from the good citizens of Brownsville in the whirlpool.
Alvarez’s carnage may well turn out to have been an accident, and its location by a migrant shelter simply a horrible coincidence. Even so, publicity surrounding the crimes has suddenly turned Ozanam into a hate magnet. According to management, some people have blamed the organization’s sheltering of migrants for the killings. Earlier this week a young man tried to enter the parking lot while brandishing a handgun. Police charged him with reckless driving and drug possession.
Meanwhile, Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott warns of a migrant “invasion” and is sending 450 National Guard members to the border. Biden is sending 1,500 troops, even as he announced this week that migrants will not be allowed to apply for asylum if they traversed another country first and did not apply there. Several border cities have issued disaster declarations.
In the north, New York City Mayor Eric Adams this week suspended “right to shelter” entitlement for asylum seekers. He has said New York City has no more resources for migrants. Until a few weeks ago, he’d averred that they were welcome. In the face of his new coolness, will ordinary New Yorkers cool too? Will they grow hateful?
Such questions bring us back to chokeholds. The mayor has lately scared straphangers about subway passengers with mental illness and argued that increased policing is necessary to control them. A civilian fatally choked Neely. But despite strong evidence that the killer acted as a vigilante, the district attorney’s office did not announce until 10 days later that he would be criminally charged — and only for manslaughter.
Across the country, anti-immigrant rhetoric is hardening into policy. Policy is churning out more rhetoric. Both are pushing people to the brink who are already addled and enraged. Under such pressure, will we be able distinguish anymore between hate crimes and accidents? Is there even a difference?