Eleuterio Rodriguez Ruiz poses in his Sacramento, Calif. apartment Friday, October 12, 2007. Rodriguez Ruiz was among those who qualified for a "U" visa because he was the victim of a crime when he and six others were held at gunpoint as they entered the country illegally in April of 2005. Seven years after Congress passed legislation to protect from deportation crime victims who are illegal immigrants, the federal agency charged with administering those visas finally starts processing them this week.
Illegal immigrants who are victims of violent crimes in the U.S. can now apply for special visas, seven years after Congress offered protection against deportation to those who cooperate with law enforcement agencies.
The U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services is finally starting to process the visas this week, agency spokeswoman Marilu Cabrera said.
The long delay occurred largely because the agency drafted rules for issuing the so-called "U" visas before it became a division of the then-new Department of Homeland Security, she said. Consequently, the rules had to be reviewed again. Then the Department of Justice had concerns, she said.
"It is legally very complex, and so it went back and forth for a while," Cabrera said.
The 2000 Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act established the visa to encourage illegal immigrants to report crimes against them in return for the right to remain in the United States and eventually apply for permanent residency.
"This is an extremely important visa for individuals who have been victims of a crime," Cabrera said. "It is helpful for the government that we get information and cooperation so we can solve these crimes and prevent future crimes. For the person, it gives them peace of mind and an opportunity for a new life."
The law authorized up to 10,000 "U" visas every year. The visas are good for up to four years, and visa holders who are in the U.S. continuously for three years can apply for permanent residency.
Critics are concerned about that provision.
"I would much prefer that we used it as a temporary visa, not an immigrant visa something that allowed a person to testify but didn't give them the jackpot of a green card," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors limits on immigration.
Ed Hayes, the Kansas director of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, is more vigorous in his opposition to the program. He argues that there are many more American victims of crimes committed by illegal immigrants than illegal immigrants who are crime victims.