After at least 22 people were murdered in an August 3 2019 mass shooting at an El Paso, Texas mall, rumors flew as the country tried to get a handle on the violence and anticipated what could happen next.
Chief among the rumors were claims that Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other border agencies were patrolling hospitals after the tragedy — opportunistically targeting the wounded and grieving victims of horrific violence to see who was in the country without papers:
The Facebook post above circulated not long after news of the El Paso shooting broke. Similar claims circulated on Twitter, either in posts similar to the one above or as claims that shooting victims or families avoided local hospitals to avoid border authorities:
Furthermore, families of the victims are afraid to even approach hospitals or any place where they can get information on their loved ones because of ICE. Now THAT'S fascism.
— The wrong kind of Salvi (@farabundista_x) August 3, 2019
JFC. Heard a reporter say some of those injured in the #ElPasoShooting may be avoiding hospitals and family reunification centers because they’re afraid of ICE.
— shauna (@goldengateblond) August 3, 2019
CNN is saying some folks in El Paso haven’t likely gone to hospital or reunified w family at school bc fear of legal status & ICE. How terrible is that?
— Georgia Mathers (@mathers_georgia) August 3, 2019
The rumor was two-pronged, in that some said that border agents were going after victims and their families, while others said a credible fear of immigration authorities was acting to obstruct access to hospitals for the wounded and their families:
How about the fact that ICE showed up at the hospital as families were being reunited to check papers?WTF??
— justhereforpopcorn (@lunasis369) August 5, 2019
I'm not sure if its true, but someone said there were vans full of ICE agents at hospitals to scoop people up.
— Katie E I will not give up #IStandWithTheKurds (@KatieVimes1) August 5, 2019
Compounding the fear and confusion was the fact that because of the proximity of the mass shooting to the international crossing, border agents were among a mixed group of first responders dispatched to the scene:
A witness told ABC-7 that they were next to the Wal-Mart off of Hawkins, and police started evacuating the area. The witness says there were people that came out of the Wal-Mart covered in blood. The witness walked into the Wal-Mart and says he saw one body on the ground with a serious injury to the head.
Police told everyone to evacuate the area or hide behind cars, according to the witness. Police believe multiple shooters are involved.
A second witness tells ABC-7 she was in JC Penny at the Cielo Vista mall when the reports of shooting came down. This witness says people were evacuated from Dillard’s into JC Penny and then they were all evacuated from the area.
Our ABC-7 eyewitness confirms presence of Local & State Police, ICE, FBI, and the Homeland Security, as well as a mass casualty ambulance bus.
Customs and Border Protection tweeted a statement about the rumors:
Please be aware that CBP personnel including Border Patrol agents + Field Operations officers have returned to their regular duties. We are not conducting enforcement operations at area hospitals, the family reunification center or shelters. We stand in support of our community
— CBP West Texas (@CBPWestTexas) August 4, 2019
According to news reports, the concerns may have been a major factor in limiting victims’ access to medical assistance:
Some of the victims of the El Paso Walmart mass shooting avoided seeking medical treatment because they were worried about their immigration status, it is feared.
Three weeks ago, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials carried out mass raids on the homes of migrants in a crackdown by Donald Trump on those in the country without documentation.
Juliette Kayyem, formerly of the Homeland Security Department, told CNN: “This is a concern.
“It’s clear that there are people not unifying with their family and that there are people who are worried or injured that did not go to hospitals likely because of their immigration status.
“That’s something El Paso should probably get ahead on.”
According to later stories, federal agencies continued to deny that there was any immigration-related activity during the response to the mass shooting:
A federal agency is denying rumors that it was looking for unauthorized immigrants as it mobilized agents to assist in the investigation of [August 3 2019’s] mass shooting in El Paso.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said its officers and special agents responded to the scene “of an unprecedented and horrific event” in El Paso as did many other law-enforcement agencies.
“Despite false rumors to the contrary, ICE does not conduct immigration enforcement operations during tragedies like the one that recently impacted El Paso, Texas,” the agency said in a news release on [August 4 2019]. “This is not a time to compound one tragedy upon another by spreading fear in our community with false rumors of ICE operations. Instead, we must stand as one community to focus on aiding the victims and their families.”
Agency officials said that all ICE operations are targeted based on investigative leads and are not random. They said it’s not unusual for ICE to routinely assist local authorities after a tragedy.
It is possible that these rumors were spread in good faith. It is also possible that these rumors were sparked and spread to increase fear and paranoia among very vulnerable and already targeted communities during a time of crisis.
CBP and ICE maintain that they did not conduct immigration enforcement operations as part of their collective response to a mass shooting less than five miles from the United States’ border with Mexico. It is unclear whether their presence at the scene caused fear of hospitals among some victims, and similarly difficult to say with authority at this time whether that fear of persecution or deportation kept victims away from necessary medical care among the victims of the Cielo Vista mall shooting.
8/5/2019, 11:03am: Updated death toll overall from 20 to 22. -bb