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Undocumented Immigrants Who Are Victims Of Mass Shootings Pursue Special Visa

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

When a gunman opened fire at a country music festival in Las Vegas almost two years ago, undocumented immigrants were in the crowd. Now, some of them are pursuing a special visa designed to protect crime victims who agreed to cooperate with law enforcement. Mallory Falk from member station KERA explains survivors of this month's mass shooting in El Paso may be eligible for that same visa.

MALLORY FALK, BYLINE: Marta was working at the Route 91 music festival in Las Vegas when shots rang out. She raced to find shelter.

MARTA: (Speaking Spanish).

FALK: She says she tripped over people who were dead or wounded, and that people were running into each other desperate to find an exit. Marta asked that we not use her last name because she's in the country unlawfully. After the shooting, she became depressed and sought help at a counseling center. That's when she learned about something called a U visa. It would allow her to live and work here legally and eventually apply for a green card.

MARTA: (Speaking Spanish).

FALK: She says, "In the midst of all the sadness and anguish, this was something positive to work toward." Congress created the U visa in 2000 to help crime victims feel safe coming forward to assist law enforcement.

PAMELA MUÑOZ: 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.

FALK: Pamela Muñoz is an immigration attorney in El Paso. In this border city, she figured there were some immigrants and Mexican nationals who were shopping at the crowded Walmart when a mass shooter opened fire. In fact, police say the Hispanic community was the target.

MUÑOZ: That 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.

FALK: Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, an El Paso nonprofit, has offered to help mass shooting victims apply for U visas. To qualify, victims must have suffered physically or mentally, and they must have helped law enforcement investigate the crime. But it's up to individual police departments or prosecutors to sign off.

In Las Vegas, dozens of shooting survivors asked the sheriff to certify their applications. After months of waiting for a response, some started to get nervous. A nonprofit called Make The Road Nevada stepped in.

LEO MURRIETA: We helped them build a campaign that uplifted their stories, allowed them to tell it for the first time and then demanded law enforcement listen to them - take a meeting - and then move forward on their case.

FALK: That's Leo Murrieta, who directs the nonprofit. He says the sheriff agreed to a meeting eight months after the shooting, and survivors began receiving certifications, survivors like Marta.

MARTA: (Speaking Spanish).

FALK: But she's still waiting to find out if she'll receive a visa from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services - and dealing with ongoing trauma.

MARTA: (Speaking Spanish).

FALK: For a long time, she says, even the sound of the refrigerator startled her. When the motor came on, it reminded her of gunfire. And she worries she could be deported before her visa is approved. Only 10,000 U visas are issued each year, and that's led to a backlog - more than 140,000 pending applications as of March. For NPR News, I'm Mallory Falk in El Paso.

KELLY: And that story was reported in collaboration with Luis Melgar and the Guns & America reporting project. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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