Nearly 20 years after its creation, the U visa — designed to encourage immigrant crime victims to help police solve crimes — is being undermined routinely by law enforcement agencies across the country, an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting has found. Reveal’s analysis of policies from more than 100 agencies serving large immigrant communities found that nearly 1 of every 4 create barriers never envisioned under the U visa program. A review based on hundreds of police records and nearly 60 interviews found that victims are at the mercy of whatever internal rules police choose.
The law, added to the Violence Against Women Act in 2000, grants temporary status to undocumented victims of an array of violent crimes such as rape, domestic violence, kidnapping, and felonious assault. Without certification by a law enforcement agency that an immigrant crime victim cooperated, a person cannot apply for a visa. With the number of visas capped at 10,000 a year, the government has a backlog of more than 243,000 applications, some pending more than a decade. Reveal found that some agencies simply refuse to consider requests. At least 20 departments have created their own rules beyond federal guidelines on what qualifies for a visa. The Gwinnett County Police Department in Georgia, for example, considers the “solvability” of the case. So do four other departments. Others consider the mental and physical harm caused to the victim, which federal guidelines deem the purview of immigration officials reviewing an application. Even some agencies that say they certify petitions rarely do. Leslye Orloff, a longtime immigrant women’s advocate who helped lawmakers draft the U visa regulations in 2000, called Miami police’s numbers “shockingly low” for such a large, diverse city, with 27 approvals out of 235 certification requests over the past three years. “What it means is that people don’t trust them,” said Orloff, director of the National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project.