Eliminating the U visa cap will help catch criminals

Eliminating the U visa cap will help catch criminals
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As Congress debates immigration reform, it should seriously consider eliminating the U visa cap. It’s the annual 10,000 limit on visas for immigrants who report crime and cooperate with law enforcement.

Trump has said that he wants to deport immigrant criminals. What better way is there to catch immigrant criminals than to encourage immigrants in the community to come forward and report when a crime is committed to law enforcement?

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The problem is that many immigrants who do not have legal status are reasonably afraid to call the police because they believe that the police will have them deported.

 

In October 2000 because of this problem Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act creating the U visa to encourage undocumented immigrants to report crime and cooperate with law enforcement by giving them the option of a four-year U visa and thereby eliminating the fear that reporting crime will automatically lead to their own deportation.

U visas are not automatic. Before an immigrant is even eligible, she or he must have the police, prosecutor, or judge certify her or his helpfulness in the investigation and/or prosecution of the crime.

If law enforcement doesn’t think the person was/will be helpful, they will not sign the certificate of cooperation. The immigrant must also prove that she or he was the victim of a serious crime and, as a result of the crime, suffered substantial physical or mental abuse.

There are several ways the U visa program can be improved to increase cooperation with law enforcement. For one, Congress has authorized 10,000 U visas per year.

This is not enough. At the end of September 2017 there were 110,511 pending principle applications, making the wait time for a U visa about 11 years.

As Gail Pendleton of ASISTA says: “When victims hear that the visas are used up they may think it's not worth it to come forward”.

Several efforts to raise the 10,000 U visa cap have been made throughout the years, most notably when the Senate’s bipartisan “gang of eight” tried to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2013, including an increase in U visas to 18,000 per year. Although helpful, with 36,531 principle applications filed in fiscal year 2017 alone, this increase would still be woefully insufficient.  

There is no reason to cap the number of U visas available. Immigrant victims of serious crime, usually domestic violence, are often already living in the U.S. and have close ties to the community.

They are frequently the sole care providers for their U.S. citizen children. Keeping them in legal limbo for years only prolongs the time it takes them to obtain solid employment and effectively support their U.S. citizen children, allowing those children to no longer need government benefits like food stamps and Medicaid.

While a change in the U visa cap requires Congressional action, Trump can act now to increase the incentives for crime victims to report to law enforcement.

Currently U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) grants deferred action and provides work authorization to those on its U visa waitlist: immigrant crime victims who appear eligible for a U visa and who are simply waiting for a visa to become available. But there’s close to a two year wait to get on the waitlist.

Trump can immediately direct USCIS to increase its capacity to review cases so that cases can be provisionally approved and placed on the waitlist quicker. This will help many victims of domestic violence better support their U.S. citizen children.

But there is absolutely no reason those provisionally approved on the waitlist should not then be given a U visa instead of waiting several years for a secondary adjudication.

Congress also intended that the U visa serve a humanitarian purpose in “offering protection to victims of [serious crime] in keeping with the humanitarian interests of the United States”, including the ability to remain with U.S citizen children in the United States.

I have worked with many women who have been victims of severe domestic violence and who, by being able to safely report to the local police, have managed to successfully separate themselves and their U.S. citizen children from their abusive partner. In some cases, where the abuser was not a U.S. citizen, their cooperation with law enforcement led not only to the prosecution and punishment of the criminal, but also to his deportation.

Reporting to law enforcement has been made possible in San Antonio because some victims know that the San Antonio Police Department will not turn them in to immigration simply for reporting a crime (in other cities in the country this is not always true).

Others do not know they can trust the police but feel they have no other option but to risk calling the police when their partner pulls a gun on them or tries to strangle them. But once they know that law enforcement will not automatically turn them over to immigration they are often more willing to cooperate with the investigation and/or prosecution.

Any desire to limit the number of U visas available to victims of serious crime is substantially outweighed by the benefits of encouraging immigrants to report to the police and continue cooperating with law enforcement throughout any prosecution the prosecutor pursues.

Congress can also expand the U visa to include protection for witnesses of crimes who participate in prosecutions. Currently there is an S-visa available for those who serve as witnesses in federal and state prosecutions but not in county and city prosecutions. An expanded U visa can address this gap.

If Trump is serious about deporting immigrants who commit crimes in our communities he should work with Congress to eliminate the U visa cap and otherwise strengthen the U visa program. What better way is there to catch criminals than encouraging people in our communities, including immigrants, to come forward when they have information about a serious crime?

Sara Ramey is executive director at the Migrant Center for Human Rights. The views in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the views of the Migrant Center for Human Rights.