SAN ANTONIO – An El Paso, Texas, woman who witnessed a mass shooting of Latinos at a Walmart in 2019, and provided critical information to state and federal investigators, was deported last week after the Texas attorney general successfully sued to temporarily block President Biden’s 100-day pause on deportations.
The 27-year-old was headed home Wednesday when El Paso police stopped her because of a broken brake light, officials said. Officers discovered that the woman had outstanding warrants for unpaid traffic violations and took her into custody. That arrest, along with a 2019 deportation order tied to a drunken-driving conviction, resulted in her removal to Mexico – a place she has not lived since she was 11 years old.
The deportation came days before her attorneys filed an application for a U visa, which confers legal status to undocumented people who are crime victims or witnesses who cooperate with law enforcement in an investigation. The woman is one of several witnesses slated to testify in the capital murder trial of the Dallas-area man accused of killing 23 people, including Mexican citizens, in the August 2019 shooting rampage. Police said the shooter told authorities he was targeting “Mexicans.”
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents walked the woman, whose name is being withheld because of her status, across the international bridge to Juárez, Mexico, three days after a federal judge blocked Biden’s deportation pause. Her deportation occurred before the administration’s new immigration enforcement priorities – targeting security threats, recent border crossers and convicted felons – went into effect Feb. 1.
“President Biden ran on a platform of humanity, and what has happened has been inhumane,” said Melissa Lopez, executive director of El Paso’s Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services, which is representing the woman. “She is the complete opposite of a national security risk. She is the epitome of the kind of person we want in the United States, people who witness horrific crimes and come forward to help.”
ICE officials did not respond to questions about the woman’s deportation.
The woman’s troubles began in 2015 when police stopped and cited her for a seat belt violation and not having a driver’s license. Then, in 2018, she was charged with driving while intoxicated and pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor. That conviction led to several days in the county jail and immigration removal proceedings, records show.
She appealed the deportation order but was denied, Lopez said.
In an interview, the woman said she came to the United States with her father as an 11-year-old to escape an abusive family situation in Mexico. She graduated from an El Paso high school and works in a restaurant.
The woman wanted to fight the DWI charge because her blood-alcohol reading was within the legal limit, court records confirm. But she said she was given advice from an attorney to accept a plea deal sentencing her to 40 days in the county jail.
Months after her removal order was issued, the woman found herself in a Walmart parking lot when, authorities say, Patrick Crusius, then 21, unleashed a hate-fueled spray of gunfire on shoppers in the deadliest domestic terrorist attack in the city’s history.
Both the state and the FBI have levied charges, including hate crimes, against the alleged gunman. The woman initially hesitated to come forward with details about the shooting but weeks later contacted Lopez’s office to help her share her story with investigators. Her attorneys said she was traumatized by her experience and underwent therapy to cope with the memories of what happened that day.
“Something told us that we needed to speak up,” the woman said, referring to the decision she made with her sister, who also was a witness. “I prefer not to say anything and be quiet, because when you speak it’s negative for you when you’re an illegal. But we saw things that we needed to say, and the police needed to know.”
Applying for a U visa requires documents from law enforcement attesting to the role a person played in an investigation. The El Paso County District Attorney’s Office issued that certification for the woman last fall, Lopez said.
The district attorney’s office confirmed it provided the woman’s lawyer with U visa certification documents Sept. 16 but declined to answer any other questions about the upcoming trial.
The pandemic caused delays for attorneys in gathering the documents for her application, which was sent to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services on Monday, Lopez’s organization said. Living in Mexico does not necessarily disqualify her from applying for the coveted visa, but a decision could take years.
“In a community of immigrants like El Paso, there would be so many crimes that would go unprosecuted and defendants who would go unconvicted” without people like the woman, Lopez said. “That is exactly why we have the U visa, to encourage people to come forward in the safety of knowing they will be protected, and that system failed her.”
A trial date for Crusius has not been set. The woman said ICE agents knew that she was a witness and allowed her to call her attorney, Anna Hey. But the call went to voice mail. By the time Hey learned of the deportation a few hours later, the woman was in Mexico.
Attorney General Ken Paxton made Texas the first state to sue the new Biden administration, arguing that a halt to deportations – intended to give ICE time to overhaul its enforcement priorities – would unfairly burden the state. Judge Drew Tipton, a Trump appointee, issued a temporary restraining order, and a new hearing is scheduled this week.
“The state of Texas intervened and put this woman in a situation that allowed ICE to make this decision,” Lopez said. “The state of Texas, who is prosecuting this shooter, just made a decision that will affect their own prosecution.”
The woman’s defense team will ask ICE to consider bringing her back to the United States or petition state and federal prosecutors to intervene. It is unclear whether the woman’s deportation will prevent or affect her trial testimony.
“I really want to testify because I want to help, even though this happened,” the woman said. “I want to help my community, because it was my community, too.”