As It Happens

Texas Walmart shooting witness deported after being pulled over for a broken brake light

A woman who survived a 2019 mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, has been deported to Mexico despite being a witness in the case against the alleged gunman.

Lawyer Melissa Lopez says this will have a 'chilling effect' on other undocumented witnesses and victims

Rosa, an undocumented immigrant deported from the U.S. to Mexico in January, was a witness and survivor of the 2019 mass shooting at this Walmart in El Paso, Texas. (Paul Ratje/Reuters)

A woman who survived a 2019 mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, has been deported to Mexico despite being a witness in the case against the alleged gunman.

The 27-year-old undocumented woman, identified as Rosa, was pulled over on Jan. 27 for a broken brake light, arrested for outstanding 2015 traffic violations, and deported two days later to Juarez, a border city just south of El Paso.

The deportation comes a year and a half after Rosa came face-to-face with the man who killed 23 people at an El Paso Walmart. Prosecutors say the accused gunman set out to kill as many "Mexicans" as he could.

"That's the thing that for us is incredibly frustrating, is that with her deportation, he succeeds again in traumatizing not just her and her family, but in a way, the community," Rosa's lawyer Melissa Lopez, executive director of Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"When immigrants in our community hear that, that one of the victims of the worst crime ever committed in El Paso was deported, I think that's going to have a chilling effect on whether or not victims come forward in the future."

A person visits a memorial for the Walmart shooting victims on Aug. 2, 2020. (Paul Ratje/Reuters)

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) confirmed Rosa's deportation in an emailed statement.

"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," the agency said.

Lopez says that's because Rosa was still the process of applying for a U-Visa, referring to a document granted to "victims of certain crimes who have suffered mental or physical abuse and are helpful to law enforcement or government officials in the investigation or prosecution of criminal activity."

ICE also said that neither Rosa nor her attorney told the agency about her involvement in the El Paso shooting case before she was deported. 

Lopez says her client told the police officers who arrested her that she was a witness in the case, and asked them to call her lawyer to confirm.

"Unfortunately, the call went to voicemail because the attorney was in a meeting. And by the time we returned the phone call, she had already been deported," Lopez said. 

'She was very scared to come forward'

Rosa was in the parking lot of the El Paso Walmart on Aug. 3, 2019, when a gunman killed 23 people. Her lawyer says she witnessed one person being shot, and also faced the gunman herself.

"She actually doesn't know why she was not shot, but she's grateful to have survived the shooting," Lopez said.

Despite having lived undocumented in the U.S. since she was a minor in 2008, Rosa co-operated with local police and FBI officers investigating the shooting. 

"She was very scared to come forward. She was worried that if she did, she'd get deported, but she felt like it was important," Lopez said.

"She spent the majority of her life in this community and she felt like, as a member of the community, it was important to stand up for the community and make sure that this person was held accountable. And so that's why she came forward. She wanted to do the right thing."

Her testimony helped law enforcement corroborate key information in the case against 22-year-old Patrick Crusius, Lopez said. 

The El Paso District Attorney's Office lists Rosa as a witness in its case against the accused Crusius, Lopez said, and also issued her certification acknowledging that she was helpful in the investigation.

The DA's office did not respond to a request for comment from As It Happens. But newly minted District Attorney Yvonne Rosales told an NBC affiliate in a statement that Rosa is not considered a victim of the shooting.

Her lawyer dismissed the DA's statement as "semantics," saying that just because Rosa wasn't shot, doesn't mean she's not a victim. 

A spree of deportations 

Rosa is one of hundreds of people who have been deported in the early days of the Biden administration.

After the new president took office in January, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a memo calling for a 100-day moratorium on most deportations so enforcement policies could be reviewed.

But U.S. District Judge Drew Tipton, appointed by former president Donald Trump, blocked the order. 

Since then, ICE has deported people to at least five countries, according to the agency and advocates for the people who have been deported.

U.S. President Joe Biden attempted to issue a 100-day moratorium on deportations, but it was blocked by a federal judge in Texas. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

The judge's order did not require the U.S. government to resume deportations as before, and legal experts say ICE generally has the discretion to delay deportation flights, keep immigrants detained, or release people on bond even if they have final deportation orders.

"These officers locally need to understand that this is the president's guide and his desire is that immigrants be treated humanely and that immigrants shouldn't be deported absent a concern that they are a national security risk or a terrorist or a Nazi," Lopez said. 

Rosa, meanwhile, is not faring well in Mexico, her lawyer said. Her mental health was already suffering in the wake of the mass shooting, and it's getting even worse. 

"There are days … and even hours where we talk to her and she seems to be a little bit more upbeat and more hopeful. And then there's times where she just feels like she's alone and like she's been abandoned," Lopez said. 

"That's why we continue to demand that ICE return her so that she can regain some of her mental health and begin to heal a little bit from this additional trauma that she's now had to endure."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview with Melissa Lopez produced by Jeanne Armstrong. 

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