Immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally are often reluctant to report crimes.
That's why Congress created what's known as the "U visa" program. It gives legal status to victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and other serious crimes — if they help law enforcement with criminal investigations.
But applying for a U visa can be difficult depending on where you are in the U.S. Now, the New York City Police Department has proposed a rule with new deadlines to streamline the process, and some immigrant advocates are looking to it as a promising test case.
Who gets a U visa is decided at the federal level — by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
But if you want to apply for one, you often have to start locally, at the police department.
Police can play an important part in the U-visa process: A law enforcement officer or a government official must sign a form as part of the application, certifying that an immigrant suffered from a serious crime and was helpful with the investigation.
"All certification is is attesting to the fact that the victim has cooperated," immigration attorney C.J. Wang recently told officials at the NYPD during a public hearing on the proposed rule. "That's all it is. It is nothing more."
Wang says the NYPD has been slow to certify applications, and for immigrant advocates like her, that means "a lot of paper chasing, a lot of phone calls, a lot of even going to the precinct and going to headquarters to just find out who deals with this."
Zoey Jones, an immigration attorney with Brooklyn Defender Services, says the wait for a certification can sometimes last more than a year.
"The delay can result in somebody's deportation," Jones says. "It can result in a delay in somebody getting work authorization and not being able to support their family."
The NYPD declined to be interviewed for this story. Its proposed rule sets a 45-day deadline to respond to certification requests and a 90-day deadline to respond to appeals of denied requests. A local group of immigrant advocates, though, is calling for a shorter deadline of 30 days, so that applicants can submit their completed U-visa applications to the federal government sooner.
Still, these proposed rule changes "could very well be a model for other law enforcement agencies," according to Deborah Weissman, a professor at the University of North Carolina's law school.
Weissman has conducted a nationwide survey of U-visa policies.
"What we see is a real mishmash of policies, no standardization, so much so that it seems that this federal statute has no uniform application whatsoever," she says.
Some police departments, Weissman says, refuse to sign off on any U-visa applications.
"They seem to think that if they certify they are granting an undocumented immigrant legal status in the U.S., and that is just not true," she says.
Only federal immigration officials can grant a U visa after a background check.
Still, other police departments may be reluctant to certify applications because of politics, according to Jim Pasco, the executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police.
"Police chiefs, after all, are not free agents," Pasco says. "They work for mayors or city managers or city councils, and they are going to reflect the judgment of that executive who employs them."
In California, a new state law now requires police and government officials like prosecutors and judges to certify U-visa applications for eligible immigrants within 90 days of a request — or 14 days if the applicant is in the process of being deported.
And in Arizona, the Phoenix Police Department is working on plans to allow immigrants to ask for certifications online, says Lt. Ed DeCastro.
"If they're willing to assist us to catch a murderer or an armed robber or a home invader, then they deserve the benefit of the doubt that they will ultimately be a good citizen," DeCastro says.
However, it's one thing to be a good Samaritan who applies for a U visa — and it's another to actually get one: Right now, there's a backlog of almost 64,000 applications, but only 10,000 can be approved a year.
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