U-Visa Program Gives Illegal Immigrants Legal Status When They Are Victims of Crime

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Last week our sister paper SF Weekly published a feature article headlined "U-Visa: Illegal Immigrants Become Legal Residents Via Crime Victimization." The piece highlights a relatively new program in which undocumented immigrants can get visas by cooperating with law enforcement when they are victims of crime. Coming from San Francisco, the article focuses mainly on the Golden State. So we asked Jorge Baron, executive director of the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project, about the U-Visa program here in Washington.

He says his law group works on more U-Visa applications than any other group in the state.

"The whole reason this was set up is because people recognized that there was crime taking place against immigrants, but there was no protection for the victims from getting deported," Baron tells Seattle Weekly. "It's important to recognize that the program benefits law enforcement and the community as a whole. Obviously there is a humanitarian aspect, but it's in a community's interest for people to cooperate with law enforcement."

The U-Visa program was passed by Congress in 2000, but the first visa wasn't issued until 2009. It's handled through the Department of Homeland Security, and has a cap of 10,000 visas that can be issued per fiscal year.

The process is long and arduous, but essentially, if an undocumented worker is both a victim of a crime and a cooperative one at that, they can apply to receive a U-Visa, which allows them to stay for up to four years. It doesn't grant or guarantee citizenship.

Still, as ace reporter Lauren Smiley reports in the SF Weekly piece, that doesn't mean the program sits well with immigration hawks. In fact, some defense attorneys say that immigrants are able to game the system.

Defense attorneys say some applicants are defrauding the system by taking cases to court they otherwise wouldn't in the hope of getting a visa. "Getting status in the United States is such a big deal that it really can create an incentive, sometimes just to exaggerate, and sometimes to flat out fabricate," says Stephanie Wargo, a San Francisco public defender who handled a sexual assault case in which the complaining witness was applying for a U visa. "I don't know the solution, but it is a problem."

Baron says his office was able to successfully obtain U-Visas for 128 clients in 2010 and 84 of their family members (usually children) in Washington.

He defends criticism of the program by saying that the process of getting a U-Visa is so long and complicated that "there's more of a problem with people who deserve the U-Visa not getting one, than people getting one who don't deserve it."

As for allegations that immigrants can game the system, he says those are a very tiny minority, as the process is long and requires proof from law enforcement that the immigrant is cooperative--and no undocumented alien wants to call attention to himself with made-up stories.

He also recounts a somewhat typical example of someone who benefits from the U-Visa program. "I represented someone as a staff attorney, before I was executive director," he says. "She was in a traffic incident, police came to take the report, then they arrested her [for an immigration status violation], brought her to the detention center, and found out she had been in a serious domestic-violence situation and had been fully cooperating. The man had actually been sentenced to serious prison time, and she was living here with her 7-year-old daughter who was a legal citizen. This mother was the only parent involved in this child's life, and she was contemplating having to move to her home country in Guatemala. But with our assistance we were able to get her a U-Visa. She's now here, she was able to obtain a Green Card and to stay with her daughter."

Whether the program--started during the Clinton administration--can survive in the new anti-immigration political climate ushered in with John Boehner and the 2010 conservative wave will likely be its true test.

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