As a society, we want people to report crimes and help bring criminals to justice. Without the cooperation of victims, the criminal justice system doesn’t work very well. One particular problem for police and prosecutors is that people living in the country illegally are often hesitant to come forward after a crime for fear they will be deported if they cooperate with the authorities.
That’s why Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act in 2000. That law created a category of U-visas for unauthorized immigrants who have suffered substantial mental or physical abuse as a result of a violent or serious criminal act in the United States, and who cooperate with police and prosecutors.
The visas are for four years (and in some cases may be extended); after three years a U-visa holder can apply for legal permanent resident status and begin the process of obtaining citizenship.
The law is a good one, although it raises the debate-worthy question of whether being a crime victim really ought to earn someone a higher place in the naturalization line.
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Rather than treating crime victims like winners of a bizarre lottery, it might make more sense to sunset the visas when the criminal case is over (though some immigrants might not come forward if they believe they will get booted out of the country when the court is done with them).
Here’s another wrinkle that needs smoothing: To apply for a U-visa, a victim first must obtain certification from police or prosecutors that a qualifying crime occurred, and that he or she cooperated with the authorities. But local authorities approach the certifications inconsistently. Reuters reported recently that from 2009 through May 2014, Oakland officials signed 10 times as many certifications as officials in Sacramento, a disproportionate tally given their relative sizes.
In Kern County, only one of 160 applications has been approved in the last three years, according to data obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union. (Oakland signed 3,000 in that period and Sacramento signed 300.) Officials in Kern County told reporters that they often reject applications filed long after the crime because they believe the applicants are making an end run around immigration laws.
That may be the case, but it is not a decision for local law enforcement. Issuing visas is a federal responsibility. For local authorities to refuse to issue a certification for any reason other than whether the applicant was the victim of one of the specified crimes and cooperated with the authorities is inappropriate. Local officials should adhere to stricter, more consistent standards, and not substitute their analysis for that of the federal government.