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ICE defies Biden, deports El Paso massacre witness, hundreds of others

The witness deported by ICE says she saw 'everything' the gunman did outside the Walmart before continuing to shoot inside the store.
An officer watches as immigrants are deported on a flight to El Salvador by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement out of Houston in 2018.
An officer watches as immigrants are deported on a flight to El Salvador by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement out of Houston in 2018. David J. Phillip / AP file

President Joe Biden is continuing to unravel the Trump administration's hard-line immigration policies but has been unable to stop the deportation of hundreds, including a woman who witnessed the 2019 anti-Latino mass shooting at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart store.

Biden went into his presidency carrying the weight of the record deportations that occurred under former President Barack Obama and a mandate from progressive supporters to do things differently.

An early Biden executive order placing a 100-day moratorium on deportations until an enforcement review could be done was suspended by a federal judge in response to a Texas lawsuit. But the ruling did not require U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to schedule the deportations.

Biden planned to issue additional immigration executive orders Tuesday.

In recent days, ICE, part of the Department of Homeland Security, has deported immigrants to at least three countries: 15 people to Jamaica on Thursday and 269 people to Guatemala and Honduras on Friday. More deportation flights were scheduled Monday, The Associated Press reported.

One of the deportations triggering loud outcry is that of a woman only being identified as Rosa, to protect her from potential violence in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

She witnessed the August 2019 shooting massacre, dubbed a domestic terrorism event by investigators, at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart store that left 22 people dead. A 23rd person died later of his wounds. Another 26 people were wounded. Rosa had agreed to be a witness against the gunman. She had met with the local district attorney’s office, according to her lawyer.

Authorities said the gunman in the Walmart massacre had driven almost 700 miles from near Dallas to carry out the shooting and have attributed to him an online screed in which he warns of a "Hispanic invasion". Police also said when the suspect was arrested, he told them he was targeting Mexicans.

The language of the screed was connected by some to anti-immigrant rhetoric used by then-President Donald Trump, Republicans and white supremacists. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also came under fire for similar language used in a fundraising mailer dated a day before the massacre.

Rosa's deportation has drawn backlash and demands for her return. The Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services of El Paso posted audio on Twitter saying "Rosa still lives with the trauma of what she saw the day of the El Paso Walmart shooting."

Experts say witnessing and surviving mass shootings can lead to mental health problems such as depression, stress, grief, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, and that symptoms might not show up right away.

Rosa was pulled over the Wednesday before her arrest for a broken brake light, detained based on previous traffic warrants, then transferred to ICE, which deported her before she could reach her attorney, said Melissa Lopez, executive director of the nonprofit Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services, which represents her. She was deported Jan. 29.

KTSM 9 News in El Paso reported that the traffic warrants dated to 2015. Rosa told the news station she and her sister witnessed the gunman attack his first victim outside the Walmart before going inside.

“We basically saw everything before he entered the store and we wanted to tell what we saw,” Rosa told KTSM 9 News.

Youth soccer coach Guillermo "Memo" Garcia was outside with his wife and children at the Walmart fundraising for the team. He died in April 2020 after a nine-month struggle to recover from his multiple gunshot wounds. His wife Jessica Coca Garcia, also was wounded.

Immigration groups have decried the use of local law agencies and agreements with ICE to enforce immigration laws and ramp up immigrant detention and deportations. Texas has a state law that allows law enforcement more power to detain people they think may not be legally in the country.

Rosa's attorneys said she pleaded guilty in 2018 to a driving while intoxicated charge, but ICE later released her. They underscored that authorities under Trump previously found she wasn't a threat to the public.

The El Paso District Attorney's Office said in a statement it had given Rosa's attorneys documentation to request a U.S. visa for crime victims, but the statement also said she was not a victim of the Walmart shooting case. Authorities can provide an "S" visa for witnesses who assist law enforcement as a witness or informant in a criminal investigation. U visas also are available for crime victims. The Trump administration made it easier for ICE to deport such immigrants.

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, whose district includes El Paso, said her office had flagged Rosa’s case to the White House.

“My concern is that ICE will continue to move quickly before the Biden administration has an opportunity to make assessments and provide further directives,” Escobar said Monday.

The New York Times reported that a whistleblower has complained that Ken Cuccinelli, a former Department of Homeland Security official in the Trump administration, signed contracts with the pro-Trump ICE union that appear to require the union's prior agreement for any changes in policies and functions affecting agents and allows the union to reject changes.

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