Domestic Violence Sign

(WOMENSENEWS)–Julia is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who worked the night shift at a carrot-packing plant in Southern California. Her name is changed to protect her privacy.

Her attorney, Monica Guizar of the Los Angeles firm Munoz and Guizar, says that on March 11, 2008, Julia found her supervisor waiting for her in the parking lot as she left work; she had recently filed a sexual harassment complaint against him with the human resources department at the plant. He claimed that he needed to speak with her about an urgent job-related matter. Instead, he took her to a nearby park and raped her. He threatened that there would be worse things to come if she pursued her sexual harassment case.

Guizar’s client went to the police shortly after the assault to file a report of the crime.

Julia submitted to a rape kit and provided her clothing for DNA evidence.

Guizar, representing Julia in a wrongful termination case against the carrot-packing plant, recognized that her client qualified for a U visa–a type of immigration relief that provides legal residency and work authorization to crime victims who are working with law enforcement. But when Guizar later asked the Kern County Sheriff’s Department to sign a form certifying her client’s cooperation with the investigation–a requirement of the U visa application–she got the runaround.

Several deputies on the case said they had never heard of the U visa and were hesitant to sign any forms; the department had no policy in place regarding the matter.

Implying Dishonesty

Guizar says one representative from the sheriff’s department even implied that Julia might have had an incentive to fabricate the crime in order to get legal status.

"The U visa was created by Congress to help law enforcement and to help ensure that all individuals could come forward and report crimes, especially victims of serious crimes," said Guizar. "I find it?disheartening and disappointing that the officers would question my client’s motivations in seeking this visa."

The Kern County Sheriff’s Department did not respond to queries from Women’s eNews about the incident or its stance on the U visa.

Certification of an applicant’s cooperation with police or prosecutors is a necessary part of the U visa application.

Rosemary Willingham, an immigration attorney in San Diego, Calif., has handled more than 30 U visa cases in the past two years. She says attitudes toward the U visa vary widely among police departments and prosecutors’ offices within her county.

Deputy Detective Kevin Bickford, a member of the Oregon Human Trafficking Task Force, works with a very vulnerable population of crime victims who often come from countries where law enforcement is corrupt and untrustworthy. Usually the victims are afraid to talk to authorities in the United States. He says U visas are invaluable to his work of unmasking and prosecuting human traffickers because it allows him to show victims that he is on their side.

"It’s really nice to sign (a U visa form) and help them on their way to making their lives a little bit better here in the States, if they want to stay," he said.

Yet Bickford admits that many of his colleagues don’t necessarily see eye to eye with him on this. He says some law enforcement officers worry that people may invent or exaggerate crimes in order to get a visa. In his years of experience with U visa qualifying crime victims, he has never seen anything resembling this scenario.

"The more education you have for law enforcement on the U visa," he said, "the better it’ll be down the road."

Inconsistencies Create Barrier

Sameera Hafiz, a senior staff attorney with Legal Momentum, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization based in New York City and Washington, D.C., that has provided technical assistance to attorneys on U visa cases, says many law enforcement officers perceive the U visa as a useful tool for investigating and prosecuting crimes. But inconsistency among jurisdictions about the interpretation and awareness of U visa provisions is a barrier for immigrant victims.

Part of the confusion about the U visa among law enforcement may be related to their relative scarcity. Although U visas were created by Congress in 2000, the first official visas were not issued until late 2008 and many police officers, prosecutors and judges have simply never encountered them.

This lack of awareness extends not only to local law enforcement, but also to federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, says Rebecca Whiting, an immigration attorney with AzulaySeiden, a mid-size Chicago law firm.

One of Whiting’s clients is a domestic violence victim who had valid U visa interim status, a designation that was necessary during the seven-year hiatus between congressional passage of the law and its implementation. The interim visa meant her client was legally allowed to live and work in the United States.

Nevertheless, she was picked up and detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in Northern Michigan last November.

Whiting says the agents seemed to have never heard of the U visa, "even when I faxed paperwork explaining what interim relief was, and proving that she had it."

Although her client was released after several days, Whiting finds it regrettable that the Department of Homeland Security had not educated its officers about its policies. It has created a situation where one of its agencies–U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services–assures recipients of the U visa interim status that they are safe from deportation, only to have another agency–Immigration and Customs Enforcement–"turn around and put them in jail."

Chris Rhatigan, a spokesperson for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, says that outreach and education is a priority for the agency, and that senior officers are currently traveling to jurisdictions across the country to train law enforcement and community-based organizations about the visa.

Whiting and Guizar both attested to the agency’s good intentions, saying that U.S. Customs and Immigration Service liaisons have become involved in their U visa cases. The agency liaison helped expedite the U visa certification process for Whiting’s client and has started working with law enforcement to aid Julia’s case.

Nadia Berenstein is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Washington, D.C. She frequently writes about equal rights and reproductive justice.