Mexican Victims Of El Paso Shooting Seek Special Visas
When a gunman opened fire at El Paso's Cielo Vista Walmart last year, the store was packed with shoppers from both sides of the border.
The store is so popular with people crossing over from Juárez to shop that it's known as the "Mexican Walmart." It's a place where families that straddle the border meet up and where Mexican vacationers make one last stop before heading home.
Now dozens of Mexican nationals who survived the shooting, or lost family in the attack, are applying for a special visa designed to protect crime victims.
The permit, known as a U visa, was created by Congress in 2000 "for 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."
The idea is for people to feel safe coming forward to assist law enforcement, without fear of deportation. Recipients can live and work legally in the U.S. for four years and eventually apply for a green card.
"Regardless of your origin or the color of your skin or if you speak English or Spanish, you were a victim, and you have rights in the United States being a victim of crime," Christina Garcia, deputy director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy, told KERA in the wake of the massacre.
The Aug. 3 mass shooting became the deadliest targeted attack on Latinos in modern U.S. history. Twenty-three people ultimately died, including 8 Mexican nationals. Many more were injured. An estimated 3,000 people were inside the store during the massacre.
At the time, only a few victims had reached out to her office. People were still trying to process what happened and take care of their immediate needs.
As the one year anniversary of the shooting approached, KERA checked back in with Garcia for an update on how many people are now pursuing this type of protection, and where they are in the process.
Las Americas is now representing more than 50 clients who are applying for U visas, Garcia said, and she expects that number may grow.
"I think after the anniversary we may actually see another little uptick," she said.
The vast majority of their clients were not living in the U.S. at the time of the attack, which underscores the binational nature of this region.
Most had crossed over from Juárez to meet with family or run errands. "Just trying to do their normal daily stuff," Garcia said.
Others had traveled to El Paso from farther away in Mexico "as kind of like a vacation, shopping destination. [The Walmart] was one of their last stops before heading home."
At first, some victims were not interested in pursuing U visas.
"I was hearing a lot of the clients saying that they never wanted to come back and that they had no interest in getting anything from the United States," Garcia said.
That shifted over time, and people began to view the visa as an opportunity for their families and a form of compensation for the damage that was done.
"It's almost part of their healing process, to be able to reflect on the choices they have that could be really life changing for a lot of these folks," Garcia said.
Some people are also concerned they may be targeted in Mexico after receiving financial assistance from One Fund, which was set up after donations poured in after the attack.
"And so being able to have the ability and the choice to say, 'Hey you know what, I don't feel safe in Mexico because of this incident that happened in the U.S.,' it is something that I've heard a lot throughout the months with clients," Garcia said.
The first step in applying for a U visa is obtaining a document – signed by a law enforcement official – certifying that you were a victim of crime and cooperated with the investigation.
It is not always a straightforward process. After the mass shooting at the Route 91 Music Festival in Las Vegas, dozens of undocumented survivors asked the sheriff to certify their applications but went months without a response. A nonprofit stepped in to help apply pressure, and eventually they began receiving certifications.
Law enforcement agencies also have some discretion in determining who qualifies as a crime victim – whether the definition only applies to people who were physically injured or extends to people who suffered mental anguish and trauma.
Las Americas has been working with the El Paso County District Attorney's office to certify applications. Garcia said the team there has taken a broad view of who qualifies as a victim.
"It's been really amazing to see that transition of not calling people bystander victims or direct or indirect victims," she said. "The consensus that we were able to reach is that they were all victims, and that the level of severity that they experienced was definitely different but nonetheless they all suffered a lot of trauma as a result of the crime."
Garcia said the majority of Las Americas' clients experienced "psychological and emotional injury" as a result of the Aug. 3 shooting. Others were physically injured or lost a family member in the attack.
As of Aug. 5, the District Attorney's office has received 37 U visa requests and certified 17, according to Assistant District Attorney Roberto Ramos. Seventeen requests are still being processed and three were declined "due to a lack of legal representation by the petitioner," he said.
Once law enforcement has certified a U visa application, the petitioner submits it to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Ultimately, the federal government decides whether to grant the visa.
There is a cap on the number of U visas issued each year — only 10,000 applications can be approved annually. This has led to a substantial backlog. As of March 2019, there were more than 140,000 pending cases. On average, it takes four years to receive a decision.
Garcia worries the coronavirus pandemic will further delay the process.
Unauthorized immigrants can still be deported while waiting for a decision. Sometimes, that can deter people from coming forward, as they are concerned about drawing extra attention to themselves and risking deportation.
Garcia said she worked with one individual who ultimately decided not to report to law enforcement or pursue a U visa out of that fear.
“They decided I'm not going to go forward and I'd rather just continue to live my life the way that I have,” she said. "They didn't access anything because of fear," including financial assistance through One Fund.
The thought of stepping forward and identifying themselves to law enforcement "definitely heightened their fears and paranoia of being on the government's radar," Garcia said, "But under the current administration so many different things are coming out in the news, and we're seeing so many different changes here locally, that the fears that people are experiencing and living are very legitimate."
As people commemorate the attack, Garcia said it is important to honor and acknowledge victims from both sides of the border.
The slogan that emerged after the mass shooting, "El Paso Strong," excludes the Mexican nationals who also lived through or lost loved ones in the massacre, she said.
"'El Paso Strong' is a way that we can heal, but it doesn’t include people on the other side of the border that were impacted just as much."
This was an attack on immigrants and the binational nature of the region, Garcia added. "So I think highlighting those legacies and those connections is really important."
Copyright 2020 KERA