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U-Visas issued to illegal immigrants who are victims of crime

August 12, 2008 |  3:33 pm

Border_fence Almost eight years after Congress enacted a law meant to protect illegal immigrants who were victims of a crime, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has issued the first U visas,  documents that grant victims the right to work and reside in the U.S. for four years. At the time of the U visas' approval, as part of the 2000 Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, immigration wasn't quite the incendiary issue it is today. Now, even the fairly benign goal of encouraging crime victims to call the police without fear of being deported is subject to all sorts of sturm und drang.

Simply claiming to be a crime victim, however, is not enough to get a U visa. Applicants have to prove they have suffered "significant physical or mental abuse" resulting from one or more of a long list of crimes perpetrated on them while in the U.S. Those include:  rape, torture, trafficking, incest, domestic violence, sexual assault, prostitution, sexual exploitation, female genital mutilation, being held hostage, involuntary servitude, kidnapping, false imprisonment, blackmail, extortion, conspiracy and solicitation to commit the aforementioned crimes, among others.

Also, no application for a U visa is complete without a certificate from federal, state or local law enforcement, a prosecutor or a judge, attesting to the applicant's cooperation with a criminal investigation.

However, before you ask, the answer is yes: the U visa opens the door to permanent residency. Visa holders who reside continuously in the U.S. for three years can apply for citizenship. In some cases, that seems reasonable. Sex trafficking victims, for example, are often threatened by their captors with retaliation both here and in their homelands if they call the police.

And there are run-of-the-mill cases such as that of Jose Suarez, a 38-year-old illegal imimgrant from El Salvador who was beaten in a robbery and who helped convict his attacker. The San Jose Mercury News has his story.

Then there's a case, highlighted last year by the Associated Press, that is just ridiculous. Immigration activists (pro and anti) will remember the story of Eleuterio Rodriguez Ruiz. He and six other immigrants were illegally crossing the Arizona border when an army reservist made a citizen's arrest, at gunpoint. Rodriguez cooperated with authorities, who filed and then later dropped aggravated assault charges against the reservist. Meanwhile Rodriguez, who had committed a crime, became eligible for a deferred U visa status.

So what do you think? Are U visas a good idea? Should they make crime victim eligible to stay in the U.S. only for the duration of their assistance to law enforcement? For four years and nothing more? Or should they open a doorway to citizenship? The editorial board is going to be discussing this issue later in the week.

The photo of the fence at the U.S.-Mexico border comes from Don Bartetti/Los Angeles Times.

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