(New York) – Undocumented immigrants brave enough to come forward to report crime, need to know they can safely approach police without fear of deportation, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Congress should preserve and expand provisions in the Violence Against Women Act that allow courageous undocumented immigrants to safely report crime.
The U visa, created with strong bi-partisan support as part of the 2000 Violence Against Women Act, creates a path for crime victims who cooperate in investigations of serious crimes to apply for legal status in the US. The program is up for renewal this year.
Based on interviews with law enforcement in five states, immigration lawyers and crime victims, the 43-page report, “Immigrant Crime Fighters: How the U Visa Program Makes US Communities Safer,” highlights stories of undocumented immigrants who courageously came forward to assist in the investigations of rapes, robberies, and attempted murders.
The Trump administration has painted undocumented immigrants in the US as criminals and a threat to public safety. Little has been said about the many undocumented immigrants who have taken great risks to help law enforcement investigate and prosecute crimes.
“Immigrants who risk their lives, their families, and their jobs to make sure violent criminals are brought to justice deserve protection,” said Sara Darehshori, Senior Counsel in the US Program. “American communities are safer because they are here.”
Congress recognized that perpetrators could silence immigrant victims by threatening them with deportation if they went to the authorities for help. The U visa was created to ensure immigration laws are not used to force women and children to endure abuse out of fear of being punished themselves if they come forward. It later expanded to include 28 crimes, including murder, sexual assault and trafficking.
Law enforcement depends on information from all members of the community, citizen, authorized, and unauthorized, to maintain public safety. Police and prosecutors emphasized to Human Rights Watch that the U visa is essential to ensuring that everyone in the community feels comfortable reporting crimes and participating in criminal justice processes.
Law enforcement officials told Human Rights Watch that they see the visa as a critical tool in ensuring broader public safety. However, only 10,000 U visas are available each year and the current backlog means that the wait for a visa could be seven years or longer, during which time the crime victim may be at risk of deportation.
In recent years, immigration skeptics have claimed the visa is used fraudulently. However, there is no publicly available evidence tending to indicate that this is a significant problem.
“Without the assurance that the U visa provides, some immigrants will be afraid to report even the most heinous crimes for fear that they will be separated from their families,” said Darehshori. “If the delay is too long, and applicants are at risk of deportation, the value of the visa will be diminished. Congress should not only preserve the program, but also work to eliminate the backlog.”