Sunday, November 20, 2011

Special visas offer protection to immigrant victims

Brandon Wade/Special Contributor
Jenna Carl, Immigration and Legal Services case manager at Catholic Charities of Dallas, speaks about the importance of T and U visas and collaboration with local law enforcement during a news conference Wednesday in Irving.

Staff Writers
Published: 16 November 2011 11:10 PM

 IRVING — The young woman had endured the verbal abuse for years, but when her boyfriend turned his fists on her, she finally fled with their child.
Despite the woman’s unlawful immigration status in Texas, Dallas police and the Dallas County district attorney’s office helped her. Soon, Catholic Charities of Dallas was involved, too. Today, the woman — who is in her 20s and married to someone else — holds a “U” visa, one of more than 25,000 that have been given since 2009 to immigrant victims of domestic violence and other serious crimes, such as rape and assault.
“It didn’t seem possible that something good could come out of something so bad,” said the woman, who requested anonymity.
This week, federal immigration officials are in the Dallas area training nearly three dozen law enforcement and social-service agencies on the U visas, as well as a similar document known as a “T” visa. Both enable illegal immigrant crime victims to remain in the U.S. up to four years if they agree to work with authorities to solve the crimes.
Advocates had argued for years about the need for a program to help immigrant victims of serious crimes. In the last two fiscal years, the federal government has reached its annual cap of 10,000 for U visas. Last fiscal year, the government issued the most T visas ever for human-trafficking victims — 557.
The visas, though, are another point of controversy in the already-heated, often-partisan immigration debate.
Critics say illegal immigrants should receive no assistance, even if they are the victims of a crime. But supporters of the special visas believe the victims should be protected and that their assistance in catching violent criminals is crucial to keeping a community safe.
“We want everyone … to know what kind of help there is for immigrants who are crime victims,” said Lisa Kehl, the Dallas district director for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The agency launched a public-awareness campaign in the area this week that features a confidential hotline for reporting trafficking crimes.
Officials also held a news conference Wednesday to provide the public with details about the programs.
Tapping down the fear many immigrants have of law enforcement agencies is a huge obstacle to getting help for people living and working off the grid, officials say. Many illegal immigrants do not report crimes to police for fear of deportation — which leads to more victimization and more unsolved crimes.
“Their lives are at risk by remaining a victim,” said Alysa Erichs, the acting special agent in charge with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Dallas.
With both the T and the U visas, certain family members of the visa-holder may also be granted legal protection to remain in the country. T and U visa-holders who are under 21 years of age may also apply for their parents or their siblings who are younger than 18.
Recipients of the T and U visas are eligible for employment.
To qualify, police or prosecutors have to verify that a crime actually occurred, to cut down on people attempting to trick the system.
“The prosecutor assigned to the case is typically the one sponsoring that the victim has been, or is being cooperative,” said Dallas County district attorney’s office spokeswoman Jamille Bradfield.
The Dallas Police Department “acts as a certifying agency for the petitioner,” said Lt. Scott Walton, department spokesman. “In that role, we do have criteria in place that helps ensure an offense did occur in Dallas and that the complainant is helping to further investigation.”
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, said she agrees there is a need to protect legitimate crime victims but said the program is ripe for abuse.
“There are many people trying to launder their status by concocting false or frivolous stories of victimization,” she said. “Some police departments will not approve any requests because there have been so many attempts at abuse.”
She favors an audit of a random sampling of cases “in order to assess what kind of individuals are benefiting from the program.”
Vanna Slaughter, head of Immigration and Legal Services for Catholic Charities in Dallas, said in her work with the immigrant community, fraud with U visas is rare, mostly because the documentation required to get approval is so involved.
“Hospital records, police reports, transcripts from the jury trial, even newspaper articles can be included as corroboration that the person is a crime victim,” Slaughter said. “Even then, the service center can request additional evidence.”
The Mexican woman who used the U visa to protect her from her boyfriend’s violence said she believes in the value of the program.
“I didn’t just go through this so I could have a green card,” she said Wednesday during a telephone interview. “Having been a victim of domestic abuse, my main message is not to be afraid. They can be safe and they don’t have to live like that. They can come out of it.”
Hotline number
Contact the 24-hour confidential hotline at: 888-373-7888.