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U-visa program for crime victims falters

Illegal immigrants who help law enforcement officials are eligible, but although 13,300 people have applied, only 65 documents have been issued.

January 26, 2009|Anna Gorman

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.

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