There is an art to navigating any government office or department. I would imagine this holds true in any country. That art is developed through careful research and creating social networks, so when the research is unavailable, you can always “ask around.” In particular, this “asking around” is all too common when trying to navigate the immigration system in the U.S. This “asking around” can lead to a cumbersome process for even the simplest of tasks and can create delays and frustrations in developing an application for United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) or Immigration Courts. While the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Department of Justice (DOJ) attempt to develop effective manuals and policies to better streamline procedures, they are not always internalized or successfully implemented by practitioners in the field.
USCIS offers a U-visa for victims of qualifying crimes in the U.S. who aid or are likely to aid in the investigation of the specific crime. Each year there are 10,000 visas available for victims of crimes. These visas serve as incentives for victims of crimes who do not have status to come forward without fear to the police and report crimes and work with both the police and prosecution to investigate and prosecute these crimes. In theory, offering victims a legal status in the U.S., helps keeps our cities and towns safer by reporting more crimes and having better police and judicial efforts for investigation and prosecution.
U-visas are incredibly important and a great resource for individuals without status in the U.S. and for police departments. In order to even apply for a U-visa an applicant must have a “certifying law enforcement agency” sign a certification that states that the victim was helpful, and is currently being helpful, or will likely be helpful in the investigation or prosecution of the case. Without this certification, an applicant is ineligible to apply for the U-visa. In order to help certifying agencies such as town and city police departments understand their role within this process, DHS has issued a U Visa Law Enforcement Certification Resource Guide to outline the process and provide a “how-to” for certifying agencies. Organizations and relevant actors are trained on what U-visas are and how they are awarded, but there seems to be a real lack of coherency in this understanding amongst these actors when it comes time to actually helping an individual obtain a “certifying agency signature.” The following story best illustrates this incoherency, “asking around” and the extreme bureaucracy involved with obtaining this certification that may hinder many qualifying immigrants from obtaining this type of visa and continuing to aid in a police investigation.
There is clear room for a more streamlined process and trainings amongst law enforcement officials so that they know to suggest that a victim of a qualifying crime look into applying for a U-visa and that when it comes time for the certification that law enforcement knows exactly who the victims need to be referred to receive the certification.
John* was viciously assaulted and mugged in April of this year on his way home from work. The muggers attacked John with a bottle and broke his eye socket, broke his nose, and stole his wallet. They also attacked John’s friend who was walking with him. A witness on the street immediately called the police and when the police arrived John and his friend told the police everything that happened and were transported to the hospital by ambulance. The police officers spoke with John in the hospital and even took photos of his injuries. John spent more than a week in the hospital recovering from 3 surgeries.
Once he was out of the hospital John followed-up with the police that were working on his case. John continued to call the police officer and went numerous times to the police station to see if they had caught his attackers and if they were going to be punished. Unfortunately, the police had not been able to identify his attackers. John was luckily able to recover from his injuries after about a month and a half, but still has a large scar on his face.
John heard from a co-worker, who had also been assaulted, about a U-visa and thought he might be eligible for one. John felt that he was a victim of an eligible crime of “felonious assault” and he had clearly met the definition of having “suffered substantial physical or mental abuse as a result of having been a victim of criminal activity.” Additionally, John knew that he had been helping the police with details of the crime despite his fear of being undocumented.
John eventually decided he should apply for the U-visa and went and asked the officer he was working with about signing the police certification portion of the application. The police officer was sincere in his desire to help John, but he was unable to sign the application because he did not feel he was authorized to do so. The officer’s supervisor was also hesitant to sign the certification and instead directed John to a totally different office with the hopes that “they handle these applications there.” While the officer provided the name of the office, he was unable to provide a specific contact person. John went to this office and was told to go back to the police station and talk to the original officer who investigated his crime. After several trips back and forth, John finally decided to seek the help of a lawyer.
Due to a training on U-visas run by Catholic Charities, the lawyer knew exactly who the contact person for U-visa certifications was in John’s city and initiated contact with this person immediately to begin the certification process. This particular office within the city police is highly knowledgeable about U-visas and police certification and John is in the process of obtaining certification.
While John’s quest for police certification will hopefully be resolved soon, his story is by far too common Victims without legal knowledge or a knowledgeable social network may not even know that they are eligible for a U-visa and if their contact in the police department does not know who is the correct person sign the certifications, they may never overcome the initial hurdle of obtaining a police certification. Victims may become frustrated with the back and forth of different offices giving conflicting information. Other advocates for the U-visa claim that there are serious inconsistencies in how law enforcement agencies issue their certifications. It would be highly beneficial for police departments to become more knowledgeable about the availability and process of U-visas to better assist victims of crimes and encourage those without documentation to report crimes and actively participate in investigations and prosecutions. It would also be helpful for all town and city police departments to create a designated contact person for U-visas who is well versed in the process and can make accurate assessments of who is eligible for certification and be able to answer any questions victims may have.
The bureaucracy of this process is substantial, but with the right contact person or office, it can be streamlined and U-visas can provide lawful status to undocumented individuals who work with police and prosecutors to keep cities and towns safe in the U.S.
*John’s name has been changed to protect his identity through his visa process and explicit permission was given to share his story on the condition of anonymity.