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When a law isn't a law

October 22, 2005

ALMOST EXACTLY FIVE YEARS AGO, the president signed a law designed to prevent the exploitation of immigrant workers and to protect them from violent crime. The bill had been passed almost unanimously by both houses of Congress. But even when the politics of immigration are easy, the policy can be hard.

Now skip forward to last Tuesday, when nine illegal immigrants in California, Texas and Arizona filed suit against the Department of Homeland Security for failing to issue them visas as victims of violent crime. Of the nine plaintiffs, some are women and children who were victims of domestic abuse. Another is a man who fully cooperated with an investigation into his assailant, who had threatened him with a gun. The assailant was not charged and was released, and the plaintiff faces deportation.

The 2000 law created a unique visa class -- called a "U" visa -- that disallowed deportation of such victims, thereby encouraging immigrants to report crimes and cooperate with investigations and prosecutions. The visas allow victims to continue living and working in the United States and enable them to apply for permanent residency after three years.

The law might have been a progressive and encouraging step in immigration policy. It confirmed, as did the recently upheld California case granting workers' compensation for illegal immigrants, that a person's citizenship should not prevent him or her from seeking justice. Nor should would-be criminals -- immigrants or otherwise -- be free to defy the law where immigrants are concerned.

But the law exists only on the books. Not a single "U" visa for crime victims has been issued anywhere in the country. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, has not even finished outlining the procedures for applying for such a visa.

Federal officials blame the delay on administrative reorganizations, saying that immigrants can apply for a one-year grace period during which they will not be deported. According to the government, more than 3,000 immigrants have been granted such a grace period; the nine plaintiffs allege they have not received any responses to their applications.

At any rate, a one-year guarantee may not be enough to convince some victims to go to the police, leaving criminals unpunished and communities unsafe.

The law the president signed in 2000 means nothing if it has no practical effect. It's rare for Washington to agree on almost any immigration issue. Congress should demand that the law it passed so overwhelmingly five years ago be enforced -- and the president should ensure that it is.

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