Nearly seven years after Congress passed a law authorizing visas for illegal immigrant crime victims, authorities announced Wednesday that the visas would finally be made available.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services issued guidelines for the new visas, which are designated for certain victims who cooperate with law enforcement in the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes.
The visas will enable the immigrants to work and live in the U.S. and to apply for permanent residency after three years. Ten thousand "U visas" will be available each year, along with visas for family members.
Immigrants are eligible for the visas if they were victims of such crimes as rape, kidnapping or false imprisonment. They will be able to seek the visas retroactively, authorities said.
"We realize it took a long amount of time," said Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman Chris Bentley. "We just wanted to get it right."
Peter Schey, who sued the Department of Homeland Security for failing to issue the visas, said he had been fighting for this for years on behalf of thousands of violent-crime victims and their families.
"This is a particularly vulnerable population," said Schey, executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law in Los Angeles. "Immigrant crime victims are reluctant to come forward to cooperate in the investigation or prosecution of violent crimes because they fear deportation."
Those fears have multiplied recently with the increased cooperation between local law enforcement and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, advocates said.
Mexican immigrants Jorge and Rene Dominguez-Rivera have been waiting for U visas since January, when they said a Border Patrol agent tried to run them down with his truck while pointing his pistol at them.
Jorge Dominguez-Rivera said he was trying to cross the border with his girlfriend and two brothers in Arizona when they saw the truck and tried to run, but then decided to turn back. They were surrendering when the agent jumped out of the truck, Dominguez-Rivera said.
Dominguez-Rivera said the agent pushed his brother, Francisco Javier Dominguez-Rivera, and fatally shot him from behind. The Border Patrol agent is facing murder charges.
"We were in shock," Jorge Dominguez-Rivera said. "We didn't know if he was going to do the same to us."
Another immigrant from Mexico, Eleuterio Rodriguez Ruiz, is also waiting for a U visa. Rodriguez said he was attacked by a vigilante at a rest stop in Maricopa County, Ariz., in April 2005. The attacker chased him to his car and held him at gunpoint until police arrived and arrested the gunman, he said.
Rodriguez has a work permit but is eager to get the visa so he can travel home to Mexico. "I want to see my father, and I don't want to worry about crossing the border again," he said.
Leslye Orloff, director of Legal Momentum's Immigrant Women Program in New York, said some immigrant crime victims had been in limbo for years. Those who qualify for the U visas have received work permits and protection from deportation, but they have been unable to travel or seek permanent status.
"Being able to actually get the visas will be a huge benefit for these victims," Orloff said. "And other victims will be able to come forward."
Citizenship and Immigration Services plans to publish the U-visa rule in the Federal Register this week, and the rule will take effect 30 days later, Bentley said.
Schey said that the litigation would continue, however, because there were unresolved issues. For example, guidelines for the visa holders to become legal residents need to be crafted.