EL PASO — An undocumented woman who witnessed the 2019 mass shooting at a Walmart store and who was cooperating with law enforcement remains in Ciudad Juárez after she was deported last week because of unpaid traffic tickets — just days after a federal judge in Texas halted a deportation moratorium for some undocumented immigrants that President Joe Biden issued his first day in office.
Now her lawyer is appealing to federal immigration officials to let her back in the country.
The woman, identified only as Rosa to protect her identity, would likely still be in the country if Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton hadn't filed the lawsuit to halt Biden's executive order on deportations, said attorney Anna Hey, the deputy director of the Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services, who is representing Rosa.
Rosa was deported even though she was providing law enforcement with information about the Aug. 3, 2019 mass shooting in which prosecutors say a white supremacist killed 23 people at an El Paso Walmart store after posting an online manifesto saying that he was trying to ward off an "invasion" of Hispanic immigrants.
The alleged gunman, Patrick Crusius, 22, of Allen, has been in jail since the shooting and is charged with dozens of state and federal crimes, including murder and gun charges that could result in a death sentence.
Rosa, who graduated from Jefferson High School in El Paso, said she was at the Walmart that day and saw the shooter enter the store and begin firing.
"She came forward and presented herself to both El Paso police and FBI officials to give a statement of what she saw on that fateful day," Hey said Friday after Rosa was deported. "The information she has was sufficient for the district attorney’s office to issue a certification that she has been helpful in the investigation."
The El Paso district attorney's office did not respond to a request for comment and it's unclear whether prosecutors plan to call Rosa as a witness in the trial.
Rosa said she was in the process of applying for a U visa — which is granted to some undocumented immigrants who assist law enforcement and who have suffered mental or physical abuse — when she was pulled over by police on Wednesday because of a broken brake light and arrested because of outstanding traffic tickets from 2015. Police then turned her over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which sent her across the international bridge to Ciudad Juárez on Friday.
On Monday, Rosa said she is now trying to navigate a country she doesn’t know.
“My life was [in El Paso],” she said by phone. “It’s depressing, I’m lost in a big city. I was crying, I was in fear and I couldn’t speak [after my arrest].”
Hey said Rosa, who was working as a waitress in El Paso, was considered low priority by ICE after a judge issued her deportation order nearly two years ago.
“They took actions that indicted they do not believe she is a flight risk or a security risk to the United States,” Hey said.
Biden’s deportation moratorium — part a review and reset of policies across federal immigration and border enforcement agencies — did not apply to any immigrant suspected of terrorism or espionage, or otherwise considered a danger to national security.
Paxton sued to stop the new policy on Jan. 22, arguing the move was unconstitutional and that Texas would suffer financial harm if undocumented immigrants were suddenly released from custody. Federal Judge Drew Tipton issued a temporary injunction on Jan. 26, halting the new policy as the case plays out in court.
If Biden's policy had not been halted, “I would imagine that at the most they would have arrested [Rosa] and placed her in detention,” Hey said.
Hey said Rosa's effort to apply for a U visa has been slowed because the COVID-19 pandemic has made gathering paperwork like witness statements or police reports more difficult. The visa is valid up to four years and can be extended for certain reasons, including if the recipient is applying for a green card or if law enforcement requests an extension.
Hey said she hopes the El Paso County district attorney will join her efforts to convince the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to allow Rosa's return to Texas.
Hey has also reached out to U.S. Sen. John Cornyn’s office about Rosa’s removal. In an email, Cornyn’s office confirmed that the office “has reached out to Rosa’s team to get more information on her situation,” but could not provide any more information.
U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, said last weekend her office would help try and get Rosa back to El Paso.
“I’m supporting @DMRS_ElPaso efforts and will do everything I can to bring Rosa home and fight to protect victims and witnesses from deportation,” she tweeted.
Meanwhile, Rosa said she's trying to stay positive despite having very few resources in Ciudad Juárez.
“Sometimes you feel hopeless and right now, I am in that kind of state,” she said. “But, right now I guess I have to have more faith.”
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