Greg M. Schwartz
Illegal immigrants who become victims of crimes are justifiably reluctant to come forward, as merely doing so could wind up getting them deported. But an obscure pathway to legalization known as the U visa has solidified in the past year, offering law enforcement agents who are serious about fighting such crimes as domestic abuse and extortion a way to give illegal immigrants the protection that would motivate them to come forward.
“The U visa has been around awhile in statutes, but there were no regulations to accommodate it,” said Jonathan D. Ryan, executive director of RAICES (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services), this week. Ryan said the U visa has existed since the turn of the century, when Congress created it as part of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act that was passed in 2000.
But Ryan says it wasn't until about a year ago that the Department of Homeland Security released regulations for it. The U visa law had sat around unused for almost eight years, but has now become a potentially vital tool for immigrant crime victims. The U visa grants recipients up to four years of legal status, and allows them to apply for permanent residency after three years, along with dependent family members. Congress has allowed for up to 10,000 U visas to be issued per year.
Officials with the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Citizenship and Immigration Services, have said the delay had to do with coordinating the work of the many agencies involved.
"It's a complicated adjustment," Sharon Rummery, a CIS spokeswoman,told the San Jose Mercury News last year. "That's why it's taking so long."
Ryan says RAICES has filed for U visas in a few cases, most having to do with female victims of domestic violence. Another situation he cited where it could be used is for victims of “coyotes,” the unscrupulous predators who seek to “help” immigrants cross the border for exorbitant fees.
“People who get their stuff taken and are extorted for more money `could be eligible`,” said Ryan. “But you're really relying on the discretion of the enforcer, so it really is the fox guarding the henhouse.”
The only way to receive a U visa is for an applicant to be certified as being a participant in an investigation by a law enforcement agency, putting victims at the discretion of law enforcement. The LA Times reported in January that over 13,000 people had applied for U visas by the end of 2008, but that only 65 had been issued, while 20 had been denied.
“The burden of proof falls on the applicant,” U.S. CIS regional spokesperson Maria Elena Garcia-Upson told the QueQue this week. She said that the agency does not keep regional or local breakdowns on how many U visas have been applied for.
RAICES' Ryan says his primary work of late has been assisting unaccompanied minors who arrive at the border to find homes in Texas shelters instead of being turned away. He says somewhere from 40 to 80 thousand unaccompanied Mexican minors were turned away at the border last year.
Gabriel Velasquez, a local community organizer with the Metaform Collaborative, says that issues like the U visa and handling of the unaccompanied minors attempting to cross the border all revert back to federal inaction on the larger immigration issue.
“The solution is a federal issue, so the fight is everywhere,” said Velasquez. “A huge part of the problem is how insensitive we've become `as a society.`”
Velasquez says “the real cause for immigration activists is the transformation of the American public,” to see that injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.
For those in San Antonio who feel they might qualify for a U visa, RAICES offers open hours for anonymous consultations on Tuesdays and Thursdays at their office at 1305 N. Flores Street. For more information, see www.raicesinc.org.