Austin Chronicle by Tony Cantu
Austin Chronicle by Tony Cantu
The Monitor by Alicia A. Caldwell and Christopher Sherman (AP)
McALLEN (AP) — A federal judge in Brownsville said in a recent order that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is assisting in criminal conspiracies to smuggle children into the country when it helps reunite them with parents who are known to be in the U.S. illegally.
U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen made the comments in a 10-page order last Friday, at the conclusion of an immigrant smuggling case. Hanen expressed his frustration in having four cases in which a child who arrived in the U.S. illegally alone was reunited with a parent who was herself in the country illegally pass through his court in the past month.
In the most recent case, Hanen sentenced a smuggler to 10 months in prison. But he saved his most withering words for the U.S. government for not arresting and deporting the mother who hired the smuggler.
The order doesn't have the power to change policy, but it offers harsh criticism from a judge who regularly handles border issues but isn't known for being outspoken on immigration.
The case involved a woman who was arrested at an international bridge in Brownsville trying to use her daughter's birth certificate to smuggle in a 10-year-old girl from El Salvador. The girl was then reunited with her mother who was living illegally in Virginia.
"Instead of arresting (the child's mother) for instigating the conspiracy to violate our border security laws, the DHS delivered the child to her — thus successfully completing the mission of the criminal conspiracy," Hanen wrote.
Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman Marsha Catron said in a prepared statement that the agency follows the laws when dealing with unaccompanied minors.
"DHS screens unaccompanied alien children for human trafficking, notifies the proper authorities, and then transfers children into the custody of Health and Human Services," she said.
The U.S. government for years has made it a priority to reunite unaccompanied children with parents regardless of their immigration status while awaiting their cases in immigration courts. Hanen's order did not mention that the children remain in deportation proceedings after they are reunited with their parents. Sending them to family members in the U.S. gets them out of government-funded shelters, which have been overwhelmed.
In recent years, the number of children apprehended by U.S. authorities without their parents has skyrocketed.
Between 2008 and 2011, the number of unaccompanied minors who landed in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, fluctuated between 6,000 and 7,500 per year. That number shot up to 13,625 in 2012 and surged even more — to 24,668 — this year. Those figures do not include thousands of Mexican children who are routinely returned to that country through coordination with its consulates at the border.
The issue received national attention last year, when about 100 children were temporarily housed in a barracks at a U.S. Air Force base in San Antonio because sufficient beds weren't available in the shelter network.
Most of the children come from Central America. Nonprofit agencies that help provide the children legal representation say widespread violence perpetrated by gangs and drug cartels in their home countries are prompting more children to strike out on the dangerous journey north.
"It's not necessarily just because a family member is here and a family member is facilitating their travel to reunify," said Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, a nonprofit organization that coordinates pro bono legal representation for unaccompanied children in the immigration system. "It's typically because the child is really compelled to leave the country because of conditions in the home country."
Hanen has been on the federal court since 2002, after being nominated by President George W. Bush. He spent several years handling the federal government's land condemnation cases to build the border fence, many times compelling government lawyers to slow down and take necessary procedural steps.
Hanen's Dec. 13 order said that when he brought up his concerns with federal prosecutors they referred him to a 1997 case Flores v. Reno, a settlement of which laid out guidelines for how the government would deal with unaccompanied minors. He said there's nothing in that agreement to keep the government from trying to deport parents who are in the country illegally and hired smugglers to bring their children.
The judge pointed out the incredible dangers for migration through Mexico. Human smuggling is a lucrative business controlled by organized crime groups — the same cartels that smuggle drugs into the U.S. By helping kids get to their parents in the U.S., Hanen says the government is providing additional customers, and thus revenue, to the cartels and putting children at risk.
Young said the so-called Flores agreement was put in place for a reason.
"What are the alternatives, locking kids into facilities for months and months?" Young said. "You have to look at the issue also from a child welfare perspective and what's good for the child."
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has approved the statutory maximum 10,000 petitions for U-1 nonimmigrant status (U visas) for fiscal year 2014. This marks the fifth straight year that USCIS has reached the statutory maximum since it began issuing U visas in 2008.
Each year, 10,000 U visas are available for victims of certain qualifying crimes who have suffered substantial mental or physical abuse and are willing to help law enforcement authorities investigate or prosecute those crimes. A U visa petition requires certification of assistance from law enforcement.
Congress created the U visa program to strengthen the law enforcement community’s ability to investigate and prosecute cases of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking, and other crimes, while also offering protection to victims. More than 89,600 victims and their family members have received U visas since the program was implemented in 2008.
Though USCIS has reached its statutory cap of 10,000 U visas, it will continue to review pending petitions for eligibility. USCIS will send a letter to all eligible petitioners who, due solely to the cap, are not granted U-1 visas, notifying them that they are on a waiting list to receive a U visa when visas again become available and what options they have in the interim. Petitioners and qualifying family members must continue to meet eligibility requirements at the time the U visa is issued.
USCIS will resume issuing U visas on Oct. 1, 2014, the first day of fiscal year 2015, when visas become available again.
USCIS indicated in a T/U/VAWA training today that they will be offering deferred action to U-visa applicants who are approved but for whom there is not a visa available. Those with deferred action will be able to apply for employment authorization while they are waiting for the U-visa issuance.
Washington, DC - The House on Thursday, with broad bipartisan support (286-138), passed S.47, the Senate's version of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), the same bill which had passed the Senate three weeks ago, also with strong bipartisan support (78-22- including those of every woman, all Democrats and just over half of Republicans). This is in stark contrast from last year when the two chambers and the two parties could not come to an agreement on VAWA.
"AILA applauds this important step forward in expanding protections for all victims of crime and human trafficking," said Laura Lichter, AILA President. She added, "S.47 allows for crucial funding to continue for programs that protect immigrant victims of domestic violence and sexual assault"
The newly passed legislation creates and expands federal programs to assist local communities with law enforcement and to aid victims of domestic and sexual abuse. On immigration issues, the bill contains fixes including the survival of the VAWA petition for children of deceased self-petitioners and the extension of protections under the U visa in regards to children who age-out while waiting for applications to be processed. It also provides for training for law enforcement officers on U and T visas which grant critical protections for immigrant survivors of crime and human trafficking.
Lichter concluded, "One positive sign that came from this vote is the fact that Congress proved it can put politics aside and work together to do the right thing for women and for America. It means that nearly 19 million immigrant women can now feel safer."
The bill now heads to the President's desk to be signed into law.
Great story on the problems with the U-Visa today in ABC News/Univision by Cristina Costantini. It features the 13-year old Waco sexual abuse victim and the difficulty in obtaining a crime victim certification for her.
Rosa Gutierrez, a 13-year-old girl living in Waco, Texas, was repeatedly raped two years ago by a 43-year-old man who was once her mother's boyfriend.
Along with her mother, Rosa, whose name we have changed to protect her identity, is residing in the country without authorization. Despite the fear of being deported, Rosa's mother turned her boyfriend of the time into the police. He is now serving a 35-year prison sentence for his crimes, thanks in large part to the testimonies provided by the two women.
But the trauma associated with the incident has not ended for the teen and her mother. Rosa, who was brought to the U.S. as a one-year-old, is not eligible to receive counseling for the abuse under government programs like Medicaid, because she is living in the country without authorization, according to their pro bono attorney Susan Nelson. And Rosa's mother, who was once financially dependent on her daughter's abuser, has found herself unable to find stable work without legal status.
The good news for these women is that there's a special visa, known as the U visa, intended to be used in cases just like these. The visa grants temporary status to undocumented victims of crimes and their close family members if they will cooperate with law enforcement. As part of the process, police or prosecutors are required to sign a form confirming that the victim suffered a crime and will cooperate with local authorities or has done so already.
The bad news, however, is that the district attorney in her town, Abel Reyna, rejected her request for the certification necessary for visa because of his interpretation of the law.
Herein lies one of the major problems with the so called U visa, says Susan Bowyer, the directing attorney of the Immigration Center for Women and Children, the agency which she says assists about one in every 10 victims who are awarded the U visa each year.
"A person can be a victim of a violent crime and cooperate fully with the police in one city but have no chance of getting a certification, while someone in a neighboring city can be knocked unconscious, not even witness the crime because she was unconscious, and be awarded the certification easily," said Bowyer. "It's hugely unfair, arbitrary, irrational, and inconsistent -- but it sure is better than not having it at all."
Like many immigration provisions, U visa law is mandated federally, but implemented inconsistently by local law enforcement. Some advocates, like Bowyer, say that more resources should be devoted to ensuring local law enforcement agencies can carry out U visa certifications consistently to make the program better serve victims in need.
Proponents of U visa say the program makes a difference because it often allows victims to be less financially dependent on their abusers, and more likely to come forward, by granting them four years of legal status, and allowing them to apply for permanent resident status after three years. Advocates say the program also encourages undocumented communities to cooperate with law enforcement.
* * *
Susan Nelson, the Waco Texas attorney representing Rosa in her fight for a U visa application, believes despite her client's legal status, there's a moral imperative to help victims in Rosa's positions. Nelson says the claims that the system is susceptible to fraud is unfounded, given the fact that its very difficult to even qualify for the program because all crimes must be certified by prosecutors or the police.
Of the four U visa applications Nelson submitted to District Attorney Abel Reyna 's office over the last two years, all were rejected. Rosa's application sat on the desk of District Attorney Abel Reyna for 10 months before he rejected it, according to Nelson.
"U visas are not supposed to be a reward for testimony, but rather an insurance policy to make sure that justice is done," Reyna wrote on his office's Facebook wall in response to an article critical of how he handled the case. Reyna's spokesperson said he was unable to comment for this article due to a very busy court schedule this week.
Although Reyna refused to sign a certification after Rosa's case was closed, other local law-enforcement agents won't issue a U visa while the case is ongoing, because they fear the defendant will lose their desire to cooperate fully without the visa incentive, according to Susan Bowyer. She says part of the hesitation to sign a U visa certification has to do with how undocumented immigrants are viewed by law enforcement.
"The problem is in our country is we loathe undocumented immigrants, and we call them illegals and aliens, and so law enforcement feels very torn, and the question is fraught, about what to do when the victim herself is undocumented," Bowyer says. "And they have to sign under the certification under the penalty of perjury, so it puts a lot of pressure on law enforcement."
Luckily for Rosa, her attorney was able to appeal to other agencies to finally get her certification. Judge Ralph Strother of Wacos 19th State District Court finally issued the visa after Nelson approached local courts as a last resort.
"She didn't ask to be here or ask to be a victim," the judge told the Waco Tribune-Herald. "It was just the right thing to do."
But that doesn't mean Rosa will receive a visa. In just three months, the government has already awarded half of the visas allotted for this year.
"[Rosa and her mother] have some sense of relief now that they've gotten the certification, but we still have a long way to go," Nelson said.
Here is a copy of the Q&A article that ran in Tiempo this week:
Tiempo: Tell us about your experience with clients and immigration issues.
Nelson: My first encounter
with immigration law was when my husband and I adopted our daughter from Russia.
Although we are both lawyers, we needed help to navigate the complex
immigration process. After our experience with the adoption, I started
receiving calls from other attorneys and individuals who knew of my experience.
I began practicing immigration law beyond pro bono cases in 2003, and it is now
where I spend the majority of my time.
I like immigration law because it allows me to help people keep their families together. Many lawyers help pick up the pieces when families fall apart, but I work to help families who want to be together stay together. I am often frustrated by the current state of the law when I see deserving people whose families are being torn apart without remedy or recourse.
Tiempo: What is the difference between the Texas DREAM Act and the one that is being discussed in Washington?
Nelson: The Texas DREAM Act was signed into law by Governor Rick Perry in 2001 and provides that all students, regardless of immigration status, may qualify for in-state tuition at Texas colleges or universities provided they have lived in Texas the three years leading up to high school graduation and resided in Texas the year prior to their enrollment in higher education.
The Texas Dream Act has succeeded by providing access to higher education for students who otherwise are unable to afford the increasing cost of attending college and by providing needed money to Texas colleges and universities. In the present legislature a bill has been filed that would repeal the Texas DREAM Act. Governor Perry hinted that he would veto such an attempt to repeal in-state tuition for undocumented students, but I hope that this bill will never reach his desk.
The federal DREAM Act (The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act) was first introduced in Congress in 2001 with bipartisan support but never became the law. If enacted, it would provide a path to permanent residence for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, who graduated from high school or obtained a G.E.D. in the U.S. and who have good moral character if they complete two (2) years of college or in the military.
Tiempo: What can be expected with the political climate on immigration now that President Obama has been re-elected?
Nelson: In recent years, attempts to fix our nation’s broken immigration laws have been hijacked by the anti-immigrant, anti-“amnesty” movement. I am hopeful there will be a change in the dynamics and an opportunity for Congress to make changes in our laws that will place the 12 million undocumented immigrants who are in the U.S. on a path to earning legal permanent residence.
Tiempo: Could you explain in a few words the Deferred Action decision from last year?
Nelson: In June of 2012, the Obama administration announced that it would accept requests for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). This initiative is designed to temporarily suspend the deportation of young people residing unlawfully in the U.S who were brought to the United States as children, are attending or have graduated from U.S. schools and who have good moral character. Young people who are approved for DACA receive an Employment Authorization for 2 years that can be renewed as long as the DACA program continues, but it does not provide a path to permanent residence for these young people.
Tiempo: What cases have you dealt with recently regarding Deferred Action?
Nelson: I represent a number of clients with DACA cases. In addition, I provide direction to the Baylor Law School Immigration Clinic. We assisted 120 young people to complete applications in the Fall, and plan to have another DACA Clinic this Spring. Most DACA applicants receive approvals in about 3 months.
Tiempo: What is the current status of applications for immigrants who have been victims of a crime in McLennan County?
Nelson: In 2000, Congress created the U-Visa for victims of certain crimes in order to encourage undocumented victims to report crimes and cooperate with law enforcement agencies.
In order to apply for the U-Visa, a crime victim must first obtain a certification from a law enforcement agency, prosecutor or judge stating that they were the victim of a qualifying crime and that they cooperated with law enforcement.
There has been a problem in McLennan County in recent years. The Waco Police Department does not sign the required certifications but refers all requests to the District Attorney’s office.
District Attorney Abel Reyna has declined to sign all of the requests for certification that I submitted on behalf of crime victims, including one for a minor sexual abuse victim whose abuser is serving 35 years in prison because she and her mother came forward.
Fortunately, judges can also sign the certifications. Judge Ralph Strother recently signed the certification so that this brave young girl can apply for a U-Visa.
However, our judges cannot shoulder the entire burden. There is a need for the DA’s office and police departments to also sign the certifications, and I hope that they will reconsider their policies.
Tiempo: What can the community do to support the DREAM Act Alliance locally?
Nelson: The Waco DREAM Act Alliance is a grassroots advocacy organization dedicated to promoting the DREAM act and immigrant rights. They meet regularly and support local DREAMers and their families. You can find them on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/groups/WacoDREAM/ or on-line at www.wacodream.org.
You can also express your support for the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform by contacting your congressional representatives and Senators. You can find your representative’s contact information at http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/. Your Senators’ contact information can be found at http://www.senate.gov/.
The Waco DREAM Act Alliance and national organization United We Dream are working to stop the deportations of family members of DACA eligible young people and U.S. Citizens. If you know of someone in deportation proceedings who fits into this category, they should complete a Case Questionnaire at http://unitedwedream.org/end/ and contact the Waco DREAM Act Alliance.
Tiempo: What is the new rule that effects the way that spouses of U.S. Citizens obtain their permanent residence?
Nelson: The Obama Administration is attempting to lift the burden of our broken immigration laws by making rules that change the process but not the law.
Under current law, many immigrants who enter the country without inspection cannot apply for permanent residence (a “green card”) in the U.S., and instead must finish the immigration process abroad. Unfortunately, for most people, just leaving the country—even to pick up a visa sponsored by a family member—automatically makes the intending immigrant subject to a penalty for their “unlawful presence,” potentially separating them from their family for up to ten years.
For some, but not all, the penalty can be waived. To be successful, applicants must show that denying the case would be an extreme hardship to their qualifying relative(s); the impact on the immigrant doesn’t count. Hardship factors can include family separation, economic hardship, medical issues, country conditions abroad, and any other difficulty or harm faced by the qualifying relative(s), if the waiver isn’t granted.
Under the old rule (which will continue to be the process for spouses of permanent residents), the applicant can not apply for the waiver until after they leave the U.S. and have their consular interview. They are required to wait in their home country while the waiver application is decided.
Immigrants can be stranded outside the U.S. for months or even years while waiting for a decision on whether they can return to their family. Many families endure the emotional strain, financial hardship and dangerous conditions of this waiver process. Others simply are unwilling to take the risk.
The new rule allows spouses of U.S. Citizens to apply for a provisional waiver of unlawful presence before they leave the U.S. for their consular interview. If they receive the provisional waiver, they will leave the U.S. to apply for their immigrant visa knowing in advance that their case will probably be approved, and they could be back with their families—as a legal resident—in a matter of weeks.
The new rule takes effect on March 4, 2013.
Susan I. Nelson is a Waco attorney and practices with her husband, Alan Nelson, in The Nelson Law Firm, P.C. She represents individuals and businesses in immigration cases and writes the Texas Immigration Lawyer Blog (www.centeximmigration.com) in which she provides news and opinions on immigration law and policy. Susan came to Waco in 1976 to attend Baylor University, and has been here since that time. She has practiced law in Waco since she graduated from Baylor Law School in 1990.
Great Editorial from the Waco Tribune-Herald on the U-Visa Certification by Judge Ralph Strother
The greatness of our justice system is not only the rule of law but the decency, humanity and fair play that wonderfully characterize our Judeo-Christian society. In that regard, District Judge Ralph Strother has demonstrated integrity and understanding of the law and American values by stepping in to help a young sexual abuse victim when District Attorney Abel Reyna callously failed her.
Strother not only embraced the letter of a 2000 law in doing so, he booted petty politicking out of the courthouse, however briefly.
For a year, Reyna refused to sign the necessary paperwork for a 13-year-old immigrant girl and her mother to apply for U-Visas, which allow certain victims of crimes temporary legal status if they have helped law enforcement and our justice system put criminals behind bars. In this case, the girl helped Reyna convict a sexual offender who is now off our city streets.
The thanks she got for her courage in coming forward, at risk to herself and her mother? Reyna refused to sign the paperwork for the girl and her mom to apply for U-Visa protection. Reyna’srationale: U-Visas should not be doled out as “rewards” to illegal immigrants who help with the investigation and prosecution of crimes. Nice guy.
Talk about working at cross-purposes. This law was crafted to encourage crime victims in undocumented immigrant communities to help law enforcement go after dangerous criminals who threaten us all. By taking what strikes us as a political stance while forging a reputation for mistrust in immigrant communities, Reyna now makes it harder for his office to reach out to similar victims who could help lock up criminals engaged in an array of crimes, including drug trafficking, prostitution, domestic violence and rape. Who there would trust him?
What’s more, the DA’s view of U-Visas as “rewards” shows no consistency with the idea of compensation for crime victims championed not only by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott but advocates for victims of domestic violence — the same advocates who so vigorously pushed the U-Visa law.
Luckily, district attorneys are not the only ones who can sign paperwork like that signed by Strother for this 13-year-old abuse victim (brought to the United States, incidentally, through no fault of her own). Judges can, too. In this case, the girl is not guaranteed citizenship or anything remotely qualifying as amnesty, just possible temporary legal status — enough to qualify for some counseling for the horrors she endured at the hands of a sexual offender.
Waco Tribune-Herald by Cindy V. Culp
A Waco judge has stepped in to help a young sex abuse victim who is seeking permission to stay in the United States.
McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna refused to sign paperwork the 13-year-old girl and her mother need to apply for U-Visas, saying the visas should not be doled out as “rewards” to illegal immigrants who help with the investigation or prosecution of a crime.
The request sat in Reyna’s office for nearly a year before he denied it late last month.
Waco attorney Susan Nelson, who is representing the family pro bono, decided to approach Judge Ralph Strother of Waco’s 19th State District Court as a last resort.
Strother signed the necessary paperwork earlier this week after Nelson made a brief presentation about the case.
“We’re definitely overjoyed,” she said.
The girl provided Waco police with information that led to a 43-year-old local man being convicted for continuous sexual abuse of a child late last year. He pleaded guilty and received a 35-year prison sentence.
The Tribune-Herald is not naming those involved in the case to protect the girl’s identity, as the newspaper does for all sexual assault victims.
The girl’s mother reported the crime despite knowing it could cause the family to come to the attention of immigration authorities.
She came here from Mexico about 12 years ago, when the girl was an infant. Neither has legal permission to be in the United States.
The mother also knew reporting the crime would place the family in financial jeopardy. The abuser was the mother’s longtime boyfriend and provider for the family, which includes four younger children. Since his arrest, the family has lived with a friend as it struggles to afford basic necessities.
Local victims’ advocates referred the family to Nelson in hopes that U-Visas could help them rebuild their lives. Under the U-Visa statute, created by Congress in 2000, permission to live in the United States can be granted to both victims and certain immediate family members.
In the mother’s case, legal status could help her find better employment and support her family. For the girl, it would mean eligibility for government programs, like Medicaid, that would allow her to continue counseling, among other benefits.
Nelson and the girl’s mother spoke out last month after becoming frustrated with the lack of response from Reyna’s office.
Other immigration attorneys have expressed concern about Reyna’s handling of U-Visa paperwork since he took office in January 2011.
Two days after the Tribune-Herald published a story about the case, Reyna rejected the family’s request.
Reyna declined to talk to the Tribune-Herald about his decision. But he recently wrote a post detailing his interpretation of the U-Visa law on his office’s Facebook page.
“A U-Visa is for someone who is in the country illegally and who risks deportation for being cooperative with law enforcement on a case from start to finish,” Reyna wrote. “The Tribune-Herald implies that it is meant as a reward for cooperation, but nothing can be further from the truth. The purpose of the U-Visa is to prevent deportation of a victim at different stages throughout the justice system.”
Reyna continued, “U-Visas are not supposed to be a reward for testimony, but rather an insurance policy to make sure that justice is done.”
Reyna said U-Visa requests also can be certified by police chiefs, sheriffs or judges.
“Lawyers who are seeking this legal status for their clients can simply submit their law enforcement certifications to any of these entities,” Reyna wrote.
That suggestion is not as simple as it sounds. The Waco Police Department has a policy against signing U-Visa paperwork.
The reason, a spokesman has said, is that victims might not follow through in helping prosecutors if police sign.
Although Nelson is pleased Strother took action, she maintains either Waco police or the district attorney was best suited to handle the request. Strother did not hear testimony in the case since the girl’s abuser pleaded guilty, she said.
But Strother said he thinks he was the proper person to certify the family’s request.
If a prosecutor signs such paperwork, even after a case is disposed of, it could appear that certification was done as a pay-off, he said. A defense attorney could argue the alleged victim invented or embellished testimony to get status.
Strother said he will consider any future requests for U-Visa certification on a case-by-case basis. But he was glad he could help Nelson’s client.
“She didn’t ask to be here or ask to be a victim,” Strother said. “It was just the right thing to do.”
Gail Pendleton, an attorney who worked with staff of U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, to draft the U-Visa legislation, said she has heard district attorneys argue certification can look like a payoff.
Her response is that cases often require prosecutors to assure jurors a witness doesn’t have ulterior motives. Plus, many cases never make it to the point where a judge becomes involved, through no fault of the victim, she said.
A similar argument can be made for why police are best suited to certify in particular instances, Pendleton said. If a case doesn’t proceed to the prosecution stage, a detective may be the best person to assess cooperation, she said.
But when a community tackles the issue, what’s important is that some avenue of protection is available to illegal immigrants who are victimized, Pendleton said.
Despite the views of some officials, Pendleton said the law had two goals: offering humanitarian relief and encouraging immigrants to work with law enforcement.
That second goal has become even more important during recent years as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have worked more closely with local law enforcement to identify illegal immigrants, Pendleton said. That has made some immigrants more fearful.
“It harms everybody if there is an underground society where crimes can be perpetrated,” said Pendleton, who is co-director of Asista, a national organization that helps professionals working with immigrant crime victims. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with helping somebody who’s helping the criminal justice system.”
University of Texas School of Law professor Barbara Hines offered a similar view of the U-Visa statute.
There are other legal mechanisms to keep an illegal immigrant in the country to help with a case. Congress did not create U-Visas as a “last resort.” Instead, lawmakers wanted to encourage immigrants to speak up, she said.
“Congress decided who should benefit,” said Hines, who is co-director of UT Law’s immigration clinic. “It’s a federal issue, not a local law enforcement issue where they should be deciding who merits a U-Visa and who doesn’t.”
Among those who most aggressively lobbied for the law were domestic violence groups, Hines said.
They knew battered women often fail to report abuse because of deportation fears. The same dynamic can play out in other types of cases, such as robbers targeting illegal immigrants, she said.
“If you believe in community policing, the community includes undocumented immigrants, especially in Texas,” Hines said.
Yesterday afternoon, McLennan County 19th District Court Judge Ralph T. Strother signed the Law Enforcement Certification for the child sexual abuse victim that District Attorney Abel Reyna denied in November. This was a stark contrast with the ten (10) months of inaction by the D.A.'s office.
Now this young girl can apply for a Crime Victims visa with USCIS.
Thank you, Judge Strother.
Repeated claims by immigration advocates that District Attorney Abel Reyna is failing to help illegal immigrants in exchange for their help or testimony in cases raise serious concerns about the confidence this particular segment of our community will have in local law enforcement and authorities. If Reyna fails to follow through and grant legally justified special visas to such immigrants, he could be laying groundwork for years of mistrust by this segment.
And it’s a segment that in the past has proven to be helpful to local law enforcement in solving crimes.
Whether you care about the mistreatment of those who have entered our borders illegally or not, this action could ironically put more of us at risk in our own neighborhoods. After all, if those in this large segment refuse to come forward with information that could help in criminal cases — due to fears of being deported or simply duped — then more rapists and robbers could live among us, perpetrating more crimes and getting closer to our own doorstep day by day.
What is a U-Visa?
The federal law that has immigration advocates in our area rankled was created by Congress in 2000 to allow district attorneys, judges and law enforcement officials the ability to grant U-Visas. These encourage illegal immigrants to cooperate with criminal investigations without fear of deportation. It was designed to forge trust and spark candor to do the right thing and report crimes.
Likewise, those who do — whether victims or witnesses — expect that our authorities will also do the right thing and help to protect or assist them in certain ways.
Reyna told a member of our editorial board last week that some of these special visa requests are from cases decided several years ago, before he took office. Even so, if the district attorney (whoever it is at the time) assures a witness immunity from deportation in exchange for testimony, such promises should be honored, if only for the integrity of the office itself.
Reyna told us this after Trib reporter Cindy V. Culp’s Nov. 25 front-page story highlighted this problem. This seems to be modus operandi for the McLennan County district attorney who, since his 2010 election, has developed a curious pattern of refusing to call back Trib reporters before an important story publishes, then vigorously disputes elements of it afterward.
Helping the law
In her story, Culp wrote of a local immigrant girl who recently helped put a sex offender behind bars after suffering years of abuse. Her lawyer claims they have repeatedly asked Reyna’s office for a visa to no avail. Meanwhile, the girl cannot receive government assistance and much-needed counseling because of her undocumented status.
We’re grateful for her bravery and help in convicting this sex offender. Our streets are no doubt safer for it. We should all feel shame at how she’s been treated.
Former Waco Police Chief Alberto Melis helped forge a delicate trust with our undocumented immigrant community in 2007 by reaching out to them to battle a wave of violent robberies in North Waco. He took flak for it but told us recently: “I felt if the police had a trusting relationship with the community, then we’d get a better handle on the crime rate.”
Melis used this philosophy later as police chief in Douglas, Ariz. He says it helped fight crime there. He recently retired and now lives in Waco.
“If a promise is made or implied, that should be so,” he said. “You have to be careful not to disenfranchise a segment of the population.”
In the end, it’s all about trust and decency.