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Border & Immigration

She Witnessed The El Paso Walmart Shooting & Cooperated With Police. Last Week, She Was Deported.

A woman who survived the mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart and helped with an investigation into the attack was deported to Mexico last week after a traffic stop by El Paso Police.

The woman, publicly identified only as Rosa to protect her identity, was pulled over Wednesday for a broken brake light. Police turned her over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“It’s not easy,” Rosa said in a phone interview, noting that she came to El Paso as a child. “I grew up there. El Paso’s my community. I don’t know anything else but my life there.”

Rosa said she was given one phone call and attempted to reach her lawyer, but the call went to voicemail and she was quickly deported. ICE sent her to Ciudad Juárez on Friday.

Now, Rosa’s lawyers are asking the federal government to allow her back into the U.S.

“It is well within the Department of Homeland Security’s authorization to return Rosa to the United States,” said Melissa Lopez, executive director of the Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services (DMRS).“It is not common for it to happen, but it is well within their authority to make happen. And I think if there’s a situation that warrants her return, and her immediate return, it’s this one.”

DMRS is representing Rosa.

She came forward and worked with investigators after witnessing the Aug. 3, 2019 mass shooting at the Cielo Vista Walmart, which ultimately left 23 people dead. The alleged gunman drove hundreds of miles from North Texas to the border city and told police he was targeting Mexicans. It was the largest attack on Latinos in modern U.S. history.

Rosa is in the process of applying for a U visa, a special permit to protect undocumented victims of certain crimes who cooperate with law enforcement. Recipients can live and work legally in the U.S. for four years and eventually apply for a green card.

On the morning of the shooting, Rosa said, she and her sister had stopped by Walmart for groceries.

“All my nephews like to eat shrimp, so my sister always likes to buy shrimp there,” she said. “We didn’t know what was gonna happen.”

They witnessed the start of the attack, she said, but were physically unharmed. At home, they sat on the couch in a state of shock, watching the news and trying to answer her nephews’ questions.

“They were asking why, why he was trying to kill people like us,” she said. “We didn’t know what to answer.”

Rosa saw that police were asking for witnesses to come forward, but was nervous about speaking with law enforcement because of her legal status.

“We were very scared to talk. We didn’t know if we should talk or just say quiet,” she said. “But when we saw that the community we grew up in needed our help, we decided, we need to tell what we saw.”

Rosa eventually reached out to DMRS, which offered to help undocumented survivors.

“We made it a point to actually go with her to both interviews with the El Paso Police Department and the FBI,” Lopez said. “That information that she had was critical and provided context that had previously not been corroborated, and so she started working with law enforcement at that point.”

“[My sister and I] felt really good that we did, maybe it wasn’t a big thing, but we did something,” Rosa said. “We helped.”

Newly-elected El Paso District Attorney Yvonne Rosales confirmed in a statement that the previous DA certified Rosa’s U visa application — the first step in the process —“due to information that she may have possessed as a witness, and certainly for the emotional injury she suffered.”

Law enforcement officials have some discretion in determining who qualifies as a victim when certifying U visa applications, including whether the definition only applies to people who were physically injured or includes those who suffered mental anguish and trauma. El Paso’s previous District Attorney, Jaime Esparza, took a broad view of who qualifies as a Walmart shooting victim.

Lopez said the coronavirus pandemic has slowed the application process, but her team recently mailed Rosa's paperwork to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency which ultimately approves U visas. There is currently a large backlog of applications, and a cap on how many the federal government can approve each year. Even before the pandemic, the average wait time for a decision was about four years.

“We’ll be making a formal request to the local ICE office that [Rosa] be immediately returned to the United States given the circumstances of her situation,” Lopez said.

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat who represents El Paso, is also calling for Rosa’s return. In a message on Twitter, Escobar said she’ll do everything she can to bring Rosa home.

On Inauguration Day, President Biden issued a 100-day moratorium on deportations of some undocumented immigrants. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued to stop the policy, and last week, a federal judge in Texas temporarily blocked the moratorium as the case plays out in court.

“President Biden has made it very clear that he only wants individuals to be removed if they’re a national security risk,” Lopez said. She added ICE had already determined that Rosa was a low priority when Rosa received a deportation order nearly two years ago.

The order was issued after Rosa plead guilty to driving under the influence. She was later released from ICE custody.

Rosa wanted to fight the charge because her blood-alcohol reading was within the legal limit.Court records confirm this, but Rosa said a lawyer advised her to accept a plea deal as the quickest path out of jail.

“Under the Trump administration, it was determined that she was not a national security risk,” Lopez said.

Before her deportation on Friday, Rosa said she told an ICE officer that she had witnessed the Walmart shooting and was applying for a U visa, she said. Still, she was quickly deported.

Lopez said the experience only compounded the trauma Rosa experienced, after witnessing the Aug. 3 massacre.

“We had our community invaded by a racist who came to our community specifically to target Mexicans and Hispanics,” Lopez said. “And with ICE’s deportation of our client, Rosa, they have effectively helped him re-inflict pain and hardship on one of the survivors of that day.

KERA News has reached out to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for comment. An agency spokesperson said she is looking into the request.

Mallory Falk is a corps member with , a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Got a tip? Email Mallory at Mfalk@kera.org. You can follow Mallory on Twitter @MalloryFalk.

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