• Darien Lamen

Is Local Law Enforcement Undermining a Visa Program for Crime Victims?

by DARIEN LAMEN

(WXIR-Rochester) Two years ago, Donald Trump created a governmental agency dedicated to victims of crimes committed by immigrants.


But study after study has shown that immigrants are not only more likely to be law-abiding than their US-born counterparts. They’re also more likely to be victims of crime.


This is particularly true for immigrant women.  According to some estimates, intimate partner violence affects immigrant women at a rate three times higher than the national average.

Under a federal law created in 2000, immigrants like these are entitled to apply for what are known as U Visas, if they cooperate with police and prosecutors.


But getting law enforcement agencies to fill out the necessary paperwork in support of an immigrant’s application? Some area attorneys say that’s a non-starter.


José Perez is a private immigration attorney in Syracuse. He's overseen several U Visa applications over the years, most of them for victims of domestic abuse.


In his experience, it’s unusual for law enforcement agencies to reject a lawyer’s request to certify U Visa paperwork outright. But, he says, the outcome is still the same.


"You know, talk to this person, then talk to this person, talk to that captain. And in the end nobody gave us any hope that we're going to get things done," Perez says.


"We never got a positive response from local law enforcement," Perez says.

Hanna Vickner Hough is the immigration program director at the Legal Aid Society.  She says her organization doesn’t file many U Visa applications due to a serious backlog at the federal level. Vickner Hough says in some cases the process can take up to 10 years.


But for the 4 requests her office has filed in the last 4 years, her organization has "worked through the local victim service office" because law enforcement is "not responsive to requests for certification."


Earlier this month, investigative reporting from the Reveal News Network found that 1 in 4 law enforcement agencies in areas with large immigrant populations put up some kind of barrier to U Visa certification requests.


The report named the Rochester Police Department as one of four agencies that "refuse to consider requests."

RPD Deputy Chief Mark Mura says that’s incorrect.


"We absolutely cooperate with the federal government with this program. We actually fill out the proper forms," Mura says. "We follow the federal guidelines."


Mura says the RPD approved one U Visa certification request in May of this year. But beyond that, it’s an issue that just doesn’t come up enough to warrant inclusion in the Department’s general orders or to be easily trackable in the department's internal records system, Mura says.


"It's completely uncommon. It's not even an issue here," RPD Deputy Chief Mura says.

While some immigration attorneys express frustration around working with local law enforcement on U Visa certifications, not everyone has given up on the process. David Irving is an attorney with the Worker Justice Center of New York who focuses on rural farmworkers outside Monroe County. He says he deals with 6 to 8 U Visa applications a year on average, and that only once has law enforcement refused to certify.


Irving believes educating law enforcement officials is important to getting results.


"Part of the education is not only to show them what this is and what it's for, but to reassure them that their signature on this application does not necessarily mean that this individual will get a visa," Irving says. "There's a whole lot more I have to show as their attorney."


Irving says the certification is to show simply that the applicant was a victim of a qualifying crime, and that they "have been, are being, or are likely to be helpful in the investigation or prosecution of this crime."


But for private attorneys like José Perez who don’t receive grants dedicated to serving vulnerable rural communities like WJCNY does, the burden of following up with law enforcement is just too much to handle.


"I just decided to quit that area of practice. Even though I'm a private lawyer I did those cases for free," Perez explains.


"I saw myself with 20 cases with 2 or 3 years lag time waiting for police response, and I just couldn't handle it anymore," Perez says.

Law enforcement agencies who drag their feet on certification requests are only one obstacle facing immigrant crime victims who might be eligible for a U Visa.


The New York Times found that after Donald Trump took office, the number of immigrants willing to come forward to even report crimes, let alone serve as witnesses, dropped in several cities. Many fear that any interaction with law enforcement could lead to deportation, driving victims of domestic violence, trafficking, and assault further into the shadows.


What's more, if a U Visa applicant is denied, officials are directed to put them into deportation proceedings according to June 2018 memo issued by US Citizenship and Immigration Services.


After peaking in 2017, the number of U Visa applications has been falling. Last year it dropped by 4%, while this year, it’s on pace to drop by another 17%.


For many immigration attorneys and immigrant advocates, the falling rate of U-Visa applications is further evidence that the program is not serving either of its intended purposes of solving crimes or protecting immigrants.


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DARIEN LAMEN is news producer/director for WXIR Community Radio. He can reached at wxirnews@gmail.com

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