Some survivors of the mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart may be eligible for a special visa designed to protect victims of crime.
The U visa, created by Congress in 2000, gives recipients the ability to live and work legally in the U.S. for four years and eventually apply for a green card, in exchange for cooperating with law enforcement.
Those eligible could include survivors of the shooting, as well as certain family members, such as spouses and children under the age of 21.
The visa was created to help crime victims and witnesses to crime feel comfortable cooperating with law enforcement without fear of being reported to immigration authorities, says Pamela Muñoz, an El Paso immigration attorney.
"It expands the reach of justice, in a sense, because it gives people the opportunity to have a voice where otherwise they would be afraid to use that voice, due to possible retaliation or deportation," Muñoz says.
The Walmart where the shooting took place attracts a wide range of shoppers, from Mexican nationals with a special border crossing cards to young immigrants known as "Dreamers," who have temporary protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
"The fact that El Paso is a community with not just a large immigrant population but a large number of mixed status families, where some people will have resident or citizenship status but others won't have anything, it just is kind of implied that there may be people who are eligible for this," Muñoz says.
In the early hours after the shooting, some El Paso immigration attorneys quickly began thinking about survivors who may qualify for U visas, as they assist law enforcement with the case against the alleged gunman, who killed 22 people and injured dozens more.
“As soon as I heard the news…that was an initial connection, for sure,” says Christina Garcia. She directs the Crime Victims Program at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, a legal nonprofit in El Paso. Her office is working to identify people who were directly affected by the massacre and might be eligible for the visa.
U visa applicants must receive certification from a law enforcement official, such as a police officer or district attorney. These officials have some discretion in determining who qualifies as a victim – whether the definition only applies to people who were physically injured in the shooting, or includes bystanders who were traumatized by the event.
Garcia believes in this particular case, there should be a wide definition of "victim." According to police, the alleged gunman was specifically targeting Mexicans. For many people inside the Walmart at the time of the shooting, Garcia says, "they were individuals who had been targets for this person that came and did this to our community."
"The fact that the victims were targeted because of their either actual immigrant status or their racial background, or the imputed background or status, makes it that much more important for people who were affected by this particular tragedy to be able to speak up and help law enforcement seek justice on behalf of everybody," says immigration attorney Pamela Muñoz, who has offered to provide legal services for survivors of the shooting.
Muñoz and Garcia say few people have come forward so far expressing an interest in U visas. The shooting happened so recently, they say; feelings are still raw, and people are trying to meet their immediate needs. But they anticipate that will change in the coming weeks.
Ultimately, the survivors who do come forward likely face a lengthy process. There is a cap on the number of U visas issued each year – 10,000 annually – and a substantial backlog of applications. As of March 2019, there were more than 140,000 pending petitions.