Image: Marisa Cianciarulo, Rosie Garcia-Anaya
Chris Carlson  /  AP
Marisa Cianciarulo, left, and Rosie Garcia-Anaya talk with a crime victim at the Chapman University law clinic in Anaheim, Calif., in January. A 2000 federal law promised visas to illegal immigrants who were crime victims if they came out of the shadows to help police catch their attackers. 
updated 2/8/2009 9:43:26 AM ET 2009-02-08T14:43:26

A 2000 federal law promised visas to illegal immigrants who were crime victims if they came out of the shadows to help police catch their attackers. More than 13,000 people took the government's offer but so far only 65 — just 0.5 percent — have gotten their reward.

The figures, provided by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, outrage immigrant advocates. They say the problem with the so-called "crime victim visa" has been twofold: The government took years to come up with rules, and now that they are in place many law enforcement agencies are reluctant to provide the required written support so victims can apply.

"There's no rational reason why it should take the federal government eight years to implement a law other than there's a callous disregard for the rights of crime victims Congress intended to benefit for cooperating with law enforcement," said Peter Schey, executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law in Los Angeles.

Lawmakers created the visa to encourage illegal immigrants to report crimes such as rape, torture and domestic violence without fear of deportation, and to help law enforcement crack down on violent crime.

It took until 2007 for the agency to set the rules, although immigrants could apply before then and could stay in the U.S. if their cases appeared to fit the criteria.

The number of visas is capped at 10,000 per year. According to the most recent statistics, only 85 had even been processed by the end of 2008 — 65 were approved and 20 denied.

'Trying to do the right thing'
While the visa application is free, the government requires many illegal immigrants to apply for a waiver that costs $545, more than some victims could afford. Under criticism, the government changed the rules in December to waive the fee on a case-by-case basis.

Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman Chris Rhatigan said the government is moving to address the problems, increasing staffing to more quickly review visa applications and meeting with local law enforcement officials to teach them about the program.

"We're trying to do the right thing," Rhatigan said.

The law allowed any police officer, prosecutor or judge to sign off on a victim's application as long as the victim cooperated with law enforcement or was deemed likely to do so in the future.

But CIS's rules stipulate that only senior law enforcement officials can endorse a visa application. That has prompted a number of police and prosecuting agencies to craft their own policies on who should qualify.

Immigrant advocates say getting the requisite support from law enforcement has become highly political, with police and prosecutors in different cities and counties taking disparate positions.

"If you're a crime victim who is cooperating, the law shouldn't be different for you if you are in St. Louis or you are in New York," said Julie Dinnerstein, co-director of a program for immigrants at New York's Sanctuary for Families.

Sometimes law enforcement officials in the same city do not view the issue the same way.

Privilege Kudina, a Zimbabwean living in New Orleans, said she stayed with an abusive husband for nine years because she was a dependent on his student visa and feared she would be thrown out of the country if they separated. She finally left him last year, taking their two young daughters to a shelter for victims.

Kudina said she obtained a restraining order and testified in court but no one in the police department or prosecutor's office would sign off on her visa application. Eventually, she said the judge who heard the case agreed to help her.

"Everybody was passing the buck," said Kudina, 30, who is waiting to hear whether her visa was approved. "I went to any law enforcement agency to try to get it signed and everybody would find an excuse why their office was not the one to sign it."

Still, Kudina has fared better than others. Chapman University law professor Marisa Cianciarulo, who oversees a free clinic at an Anaheim, California, center for domestic violence victims, said city authorities have denied a third of her requests for certification since January 2007.

'All up to the feds'
The Orange County district attorney's office — just seven miles away in Santa Ana — received 90 requests between December 2007 and November 2008 and denied only five, said Ted Burnett, assistant district attorney for family protection.

"We're not making any decision on whether the person gets it or not. That's all up to the feds," Burnett said. "When they send one to me, (I ask): `Is it a qualifying crime, a serious enough injury and did they cooperate?' — and if they did all those things, then I sign it."

In Colorado, Weld County prosecutor Ken Buck said his office has received eight requests to support visa applications and denied them all because the victims came forward after their cases were closed.

"I don't think the intent of it is to help someone who has been a victim of crime 10 years ago. I think the intent of it is to help law enforcement prosecute cases," said Buck, a strong supporter of tougher immigration enforcement.

Some immigrant advocates say police and prosecutors are using the rules to avoid getting involved in the contentious issue of illegal immigration.

In Ohio, attorney Adolf Olivas said police agencies have supported victims in some Cincinnati suburbs but not others.

"What we have found is basically that everyone talks a good fight — everyone says `yes, we know this is a great tool for community policing,'" said Olivas, senior attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio. "But when it comes time to sign on the dotted line, they are less than eager."

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