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.
Before her deportation on Friday, Rosa said, she told an ICE officer that she had witnessed the shooting and was applying for a U Visa.
“He told me that may help you, but if they need you they’re gonna call you and you’re just gonna get a pass for certain days [to come testify] and go back to your country,” she said. “At that moment I felt very, very scared.”
In a statement, ICE said the agency is “coordinating with state and federal officials to offer any assistance needed in the furtherance of the prosecution tied to the tragic 2019 El Paso Walmart shooting,” and that, “if the need arises, the agencies will remain in coordination with ICE to determine whether it is necessary that Rosa…be physically present in the United States.”
ICE also stated that “neither [Rosa] nor her attorney made known to ICE her coordination with local enforcement regarding the 2019 shooting case prior to her removal on Jan. 29. Non-citizen victims and witnesses of crimes may seek certain benefits allowing them to remain in the United States. According to checks performed by ICE prior to [Rosa]’s removal, none of those benefits were indicated.”
“It is untrue that the El Paso ICE office was unaware prior to Rosa’s deportation…that she was a Walmart victim,” Lopez said in a statement responding to ICE’s comments.
When Rosa’s lawyer returned the call from an ICE officer, Lopez said, “he acknowledged…that Rosa told him she was a Walmart victim.”
She also stated that “ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) officers were present when Rosa was interviewed by the El Paso Police Department and the FBI in reference to the events of the Aug. 3 Walmart shooting.”
Aug. 3, 2019
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.”
Applying For A U Visa
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.
Rosa — an El Pasoan and survivor and material witness of the deadliest terrorist attack against Latinos — was deported yesterday.
— Rep. Veronica Escobar (@RepEscobar) January 30, 2021
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 she 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.
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.
Read the full statements from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services at KERA.
Mallory Falk is a corps member with Report For America, 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.