January 26, 2009

U-Visa Program for Crime Victims Falters

By Anna Gorman
January 26, 2009
When Jorge Garcia delivered a pizza in Van Nuys in September 2003, he was forced at knifepoint to enter the apartment.

Garcia said two men choked him until he passed out. When he awoke, his neck and wrist had been sliced and his stomach burned with an iron. The men told Garcia they had a gun and threatened to kill him. Then the assailants picked him up, threw him in the trunk of his car and dumped the vehicle.

Bleeding and in pain, Garcia escaped and sought help.

He later identified both men and testified against them in court, helping convict them of several charges -- including robbery, carjacking and kidnapping -- that will send them to prison for life.

The crime made Garcia, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, eligible for a little-known benefit from the U.S. government. As a crime victim who cooperated with law enforcement, Garcia was able to apply for a visa that would grant him temporary legal status in the United States. But nearly a year after submitting his application, Garcia hasn't received a response from the government.

Congress created the U-visa in 2000 to bolster law enforcement's ability to investigate and prosecute certain crimes while offering protection to the victims. After an eight-year delay, the government issued its first U-visa last summer.

Through the end of 2008, 65 such visas had been issued, although about 13,300 people have filed applications. Twenty have been denied.

After a preliminary review, the government also has given temporary benefits to 10,800 applicants while they wait for a final decision, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration.

"They are dragging their heels," said Alan Diamante, a longtime immigration attorney in Los Angeles. "These people are not a priority."

They should be a priority because the visa is an incentive for victims to come forward and assist law enforcement, Diamante said.

But Federation for American Immigration Reform spokesman Ira Mehlman said that the visas shouldn't exist and that victims of crime should cooperate with police regardless of what they might receive in return.

"You shouldn't have to bribe somebody to come forward," he said. "Being a victim of a crime shouldn't be your ticket to stay in the United States."

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman Sharon Rummery said that the agency is moving forward on the visas but that it is a long process.

"The U-visas are very complicated, and we have to work with law enforcement agencies to make sure that the people are qualified," she said. "We are going to take the time and make sure it is done correctly."

Charlie Beck, chief of detectives at the Los Angeles Police Department, agreed that the applications have to be carefully vetted based on the stringent requirements.

"Not everybody who applies is entitled to one," he said. "Just being a victim is certainly not enough."

When the process is used correctly, Beck said, it can help criminal investigations, especially in Los Angeles.

To be eligible for a visa, the victim must have information concerning the crime, be helpful in the investigation or prosecution and have suffered substantial physical or mental abuse as a result of the crime. After three years, visa holders can apply to become legal permanent residents and can eventually become U.S. citizens. The law allows 10,000 applicants to receive visas each year. They can petition for certain family members to also receive visas.

Because it took so long to create the regulations for the visas, the government created an interim relief for qualified applicants. Until a decision is made on the visa, those applicants are protected from deportation and can receive work permits and access to public services while they are waiting, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

In Garcia's case, Deputy Dist. Atty. Garrett Dameron said the victim spent days in court and testified multiple times.

"If anybody deserves a chance to stay, this guy definitely earned it," he said.

Garcia, 35, said he didn't help police and prosecutors to get the visa but to prevent his assailants from harming other people. But he also said he views the visa as a sort of compensation for what happened that night and for the physical and mental suffering he has endured since.


Because he has not received even interim relief, Garcia cannot legally work or travel to see relatives in Mexico.

"I would like to have a conclusion," he said. "Whatever response they are going to give me, the faster the better, so I am not thinking and thinking."

Any kind of delay is problematic, especially for domestic violence victims, said Eve Sheedy, director of domestic violence policy for the Los Angeles city attorney's office.

"If you are illegal and monolingual and you can't access any public services, you are trapped," she said. "You are scared and you are in danger."

She said the benefit is not just for undocumented victims of violent crime but for society as a whole.

"This is crime that is occurring, it's crime that is going to reoccur and it's crime that is probably going to escalate," she said. "There are all of these motivations to provide assistance to these victims."

Esperanza Lopez, 25, said that after being brutally attacked by her boyfriend, she just wanted a plane ticket home to Mexico. But her mother convinced her to apply and try to stay.

"It's a good program that can help us," she said. "But what a price to pay."

Lopez came to the U.S. on a tourist visa four years ago and moved in with her boyfriend. Soon after, he became extremely jealous. She said he made her leave her job at a salon, took away her cellphone and her wallet, pushed and hit her and threatened to harm her and her family in Mexico if she left. The violence escalated, and on one occasion he stabbed her in the foot with a small knife.

The attack that left her with multiple stab wounds occurred one night in August 2006. Her boyfriend had been drinking when he hit her in the face and threatened to kill her. She ran outside their Los Angeles apartment, but he chased her around the block and dragged her back inside, where he kicked her, threw her against the door and stabbed her in the arm before stabbing himself. When Garcia saw that he had fallen, she ran outside and into the middle of the street.

But she said he caught her again, threw her on the ground and stabbed her several times before police arrived and arrested him.

Lopez helped police and identified her attacker in court. Before trial, he pleaded guilty to attempted murder and kidnapping and was sentenced to life in prison. Lopez said she thought she would receive the visa, or at least the interim relief, when the detective signed the application more than a year ago. She is still waiting.

Her immigration attorney, Alisa Daubenspeck with the Central American Resource Center, said only two of her clients have been approved for U-visas; about 100 more are waiting. Several have been waiting for four or five years. Daubenspeck said she can't give them any sort of timeline.

After they submit fingerprints, she said, the applications "just drop off the face of the Earth."

"There is no evidence there is any processing being done on these petitions."

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