WICHITA, Kan. - Illegal immigrants who are victims of violent crimes in the U.S. can now apply for special visas, seven years after Congress offered protection against deportation to those who cooperate with law enforcement agencies.
The U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services is finally starting to process the visas this week, agency spokeswoman Marilu Cabrera said.
The long delay occurred largely because the agency drafted rules for issuing the so-called "U" visas before it became a division of the then-new Department of Homeland Security, she said. Consequently, the rules had to be reviewed again. Then the Department of Justice had concerns, she said.
"It is legally very complex, and so it went back and forth for a while," Cabrera said.
The 2000 Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act established the visa to encourage illegal immigrants to report crimes against them in return for the right to remain in the United States and eventually apply for permanent residency.
"This is an extremely important visa for individuals who have been victims of a crime," Cabrera said. "It is helpful for the government that we get information and cooperation so we can solve these crimes and prevent future crimes. For the person, it gives them peace of mind and an opportunity for a new life."
The law authorized up to 10,000 "U" visas every year. The visas are good for up to four years, and visa holders who are in the U.S. continuously for three years can apply for permanent residency.
Critics are concerned about that provision.
"I would much prefer that we used it as a temporary visa, not an immigrant visa - something that allowed a person to testify but didn't give them the jackpot of a green card," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors limits on immigration.
Ed Hayes, the Kansas director of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, is more vigorous in his opposition to the program. He argues that there are many more American victims of crimes committed by illegal immigrants than illegal immigrants who are crime victims.
"If they are here illegally, they broke the law," Hayes said. "If they become a victim, I am sorry for them. They should testify and then go home."
Since the law was passed, 8,301 petitioners and their families have been granted interim relief from deportation while awaiting publication of the "U" visa rules. They now have 180 days to apply for the special visas.
Among those who qualified for deferred action was Eleuterio Rodriguez Ruiz, who said he hopes to get a visa that will allow him to travel to Mexico to see his parents.
"More than anything I came to this country to find a better standard of living, maybe even buy a house," he said in Spanish in a phone interview from Sacramento, Calif., where he works as a field hand harvesting fruit.
The 30-year-old Mexican citizen was one of seven people held at gunpoint at an Arizona rest stop by an Army reservist as they were crossing illegally into the United States.
Rodriguez Ruiz said he cooperated with authorities, who subsequently filed aggravated assault charges against Sgt. Patrick Haab. The county attorney later dropped the charges, citing a state law that allows citizens to make an arrest when a felony has been committed.
The delay in the "U" visa program led a coalition of civil rights groups to file a class-action lawsuit in 2005 against Citizen and Immigration Services and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
"We intend to continue the fight for immigrant crime victims. ... Because it was a largely poor, vulnerable population with no political clout, it took seven years," said Peter A. Schey, lead counsel in the lawsuit.
Schey wants Citizen and Immigration Services to allow more than 10,000 annual "U" visas to compensate for the delay.
He also opposes restrictions giving victims only six months to apply for the visa and the requirement that petitioners be certified as crime victims by a law enforcement agency or prosecutor.
"Hundreds of thousands of law enforcement agencies will not see fit to certify them. They don't know about it, don't want to get involved or don't care," Schey said.
Angela Ferguson, an immigration attorney in Kansas City, Mo., who has handled about 50 deferred action cases for "U" visas, doubts the program will change immigrants' attitudes toward police.
"I don't think it is going to help them trust law enforcement more," she said. "The fear is being stirred up everywhere - the fear of racial profiling, the rumors, the raids. I have people for the first time coming into my office and saying they are giving up and leaving."