Todd Axtell had just taken over as St. Paul police chief last summer when immigrant advocates pressed him on a longtime grievance: The department has refused to back most applications for special visas that allow crime victims who help police to stay in the country, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports. A law enforcement agency must confirm that immigrants were crime victims and cooperated with police before they can petition the federal government for “U visas,” which open a path to citizenship. Minneapolis police have backed more than 80 percent of the visa applicants in recent years, putting it near the top nationally. St. Paul’s rate, by contrast, has hovered around 10 percent. Some Twin Cities suburbs approve an even smaller share.
The Trump administration’s tougher stance on immigration has fueled a push to lobby police on the issue and to promote legislation that would compel a more consistent approach across Minnesota law enforcement agencies. “It’s unfortunate that if you are a victim on this side of the river, you will be denied, but on the other side your request will be signed,” said John Keller of the St. Paul-based Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota. With U visa applications climbing nationally, the program’s critics — from Congress members to some law enforcement officials — have become more vocal, saying some immigrants abuse the program. Congress created the U visa program in 2000 to encourage crime reporting and cooperation by immigrants who otherwise might fear that contacting police would get them deported. Applications for the visas have gone up almost sixfold since 2010. The increase, coupled with an annual limit on the visas, has led to a backlog of more than 150,000 petitions.