U visa program aids immigrants, police in Treasure Valley

Boise, other Valley law enforcement agencies utilize a federal act that assists investigators, helps prosecutors and allows noncitizens to be in the U.S. legally

dpopkey@idahostatesman.comAugust 4, 2013 

Marcos and Carlota Zurita sit on the bed of his 15-year-old-daughter, who lives in Virginia with her birth mother. Marcos credits Carlota, his children's stepmother, with persuading him to go to court in 2005 for a custody order. "Before then, I didn't have the courage to do things through the law," he said.

KYLE GREEN — kgreen@idahostatesman.com

  • A ‘U VISA’ PRIMER

    Congress created the program in 2000 with the passage of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, which included the Battered Immigrant Women’s Protection Act. The law was aimed at helping investigate cases of domestic violence, sexual assault, trafficking of aliens and other crimes, and at protecting victims.

    It took until 2007 for regulations to be promulgated by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Applicants can receive a visa good for four years and may apply for permanent residency (green card) after three years. Fingerprinting and FBI background checks are mandatory. Criminal history, immigration violations and security concerns can result in denial.

    To qualify, applicants must:

    - Prove they’ve suffered substantial physical or mental abuse as a result of having been a victim of a qualifying criminal offense that violates U.S. laws.

    - Have credible and reliable information about the crime.

    - Be helpful in the investigation or prosecution.

    Local law enforcement must certify applications for federal consideration and may disavow certification if cooperation ceases.

    In addition to domestic abuse, sexual assault and human trafficking, other qualifying crimes include: abduction, abusive sexual contact, blackmail, extortion, false imprisonment, genital female mutilation, felonious assault, hostage taking, incest, involuntary servitude, kidnapping, manslaughter, murder, peonage, perjury, prostitution, rape, sexual exploitation, slave trading, torture, witness tampering and unlawful criminal restraint.

    Family members also may qualify and obtain a derivative visa.

    Congress capped U visas at 10,000, a figure reached annually since 2010. Since 2009, 39,672 U visas have been approved and 8,599 denied, an approval rate of 82 percent.

  • ABOUT DAN POPKEY

    Dan has been with the Statesman since 1984, first working as a police reporter. He grew up in the Santa Clara Valley when it was an important fruit-growing area. As a child, he sometimes accompanied his mother — a sociology student who became a probation officer — to volunteer at migrant labor camps.

For most of the 18 years since Marcos Zurita entered the United States illegally, he’s feared the police and the courts.

Not anymore.

“I had to trust in the law,” said Zurita, 37, of Nampa.

That’s saying a lot for a man who has twice been deported to Mexico and is engaged in the latest chapter of a long battle with his former girlfriend over his right to see their children, a 15-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy.

Zurita crossed the border at Tijuana, aiming to save enough money to return to Mexico City, build a house and open a neighborhood market. Then he met the ex-girlfriend, a U.S. citizen. They had the kids and he stayed. “Plans don’t always work out like one thinks they will,” he said.

Now, Zurita is among a small number of Idaho residents, probably a few hundred, who are in the U.S. legally thanks to a relatively obscure program called “U visa.”

Visas are available to selected crime victims who cooperate with police and prosecutors. Congress has authorized the Department of Homeland Security to grant up to 10,000 U visas annually for residents who crossed the border illegally or overstayed their visas. After passing a background check and other hurdles, U visa holders may remain up to four years and have the chance to apply for permanent residency after three years.

In 2009, Zurita’s ex reported him to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, making good on a long-standing threat.

Three months into an eight-month stay awaiting deportation at the Canyon County Jail, Zurita was punched in the face by another inmate facing drug charges. Zurita’s jaw was dislocated, teeth chipped and vision blurred. For a month he was on a liquid diet.

Zurita didn’t retaliate, even though fellow inmates chanted “Fight! Fight! Fight!”

“I got up and looked at him and just walked away because I rely on the police officers to fix that stuff,” Zurita said.

He was deported in 2010. But because of his cooperation with authorities in the assault case, Canyon County Prosecutor Bryan Taylor signed the certification in 2011 that allowed Zurita’s application to be considered by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. In November 2012, Zurita was permitted to re-enter the country.

Taylor is an elected official who well understands the divided politics of immigration. But he makes no bones about having certified 123 U visa applications since 2010.

“These are victims of crimes,” Taylor said. “I don’t think anybody in this grand world deserves to be abused, battered or harmed in any way. It’s a fundamental tenet.”

CHAMPIONING U VISAS

Boise Police Chief Mike Masterson says that the fear of deportation means crimes go unreported, and that such lawlessness hurts the entire community.

“I want the word out that if you cooperate with the police, they’re not going to deport you ... in fact, there are certain benefits if you are the victim of a personal crime whether you’re a citizen or not,” Masterson said.

In June, Masterson was among nine law enforcement executives who met in Washington, D.C., to help develop a model U visa certification policy for submission to the International Association of Chiefs of Police. The U visa was enacted in 2000, but regulations weren’t in place until 2007.

“There is very inconsistent utilization of the law by law enforcement,” said Maria Andrade, whose Boise law firm helped pioneer U visa applications in southern Idaho.

Some departments consider only cases of domestic violence, the largest source of applicants, Andrade said. “I think some of the purported policy reasons are in part due to residual feelings that we shouldn’t be doing things to help noncitizens,” she said.

In Meridian, Deputy Chief Tracy Basterrechea said the police department shies from using the program. “Immigration is the federal government’s job,” Basterrechea said. “As a general rule, we just don’t sign those. We’re reluctant to get involved in this whole thing.”

Ada County Sheriff Gary Raney said he’s had only three or four requests and hasn’t certified any. “I think it needs to be used judiciously,” Raney said. “In some of our cases, it appears information wasn’t accurate.”

Wendy Olson, the U.S. attorney in Idaho, said she strongly supports the law as a way to encourage cooperation with law enforcement. Olson has had two requests to certify U visas, both of which she denied because the applicants had been convicted of gun or gang-related offenses. “They just didn’t fit our criteria,” Olson said.

GOOD POLICE WORK

Some critics worry that the program can be exploited by immigrants who exaggerate or concoct cases to obtain legal status.

Masterson, however, said U visas are a tool to fight crime, not a back-door route to legal status.

“Regardless of our opinions on immigration, we in law enforcement have to verify the facts,” Masterson said. “There has to be some nexus to prosecution.”

Masterson has certified 27 of 35 applications since 2009, rejecting those that failed to meet federal criteria. He said the number isn’t large, but the symbolic value is considerable.

“It’s important that we advocate and protect the victims of crime, regardless of citizenship. We want to create a favorable impression with those victims,” he said. “So if there is additional criminal activity going on in the immigrant community, people will feel comfortable coming forward and reporting, and that we have that relationship.”

Detective Shelli Sonnenberg has worked as the Boise department’s liaison to immigrant groups and does U visa training for law enforcement on behalf of the National Immigrant Victims’ Access to Justice Partnership, the same outfit that invited Masterson to Washington in June.

“Regardless of why they’re here or how they got here, nobody deserves to be victimized,” Sonnenberg said. “Our community suffers because people don’t come forward. The lack of reporting hurts us because we don’t fully understand what’s going on in our city.”

Caldwell Police Chief Chris Allgood said the requirement that local law enforcement certify an application is vital. “We have a very hands-on level of saying ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ because we investigated. So, I feel comfortable with it,” he said.

Allgood, however, wishes there were time limits on applications. A victim might be cooperative, but the information is no longer necessary in closed cases, he said. Congress put no time limit on applications.

Nampa Police Chief Craig Kingsbury recently recommended a denial to Taylor, who signs off on most U visa applications in Canyon County. The applicant, jailed in Texas, had indeed been shot, but he’d also shot his assailant in a drug deal gone bad, Kingsbury said.

Nampa has an active kidnapping case in which a U visa has allowed the mother of two children who are U.S. citizens to stay and assist with the investigation. “I think it’s a good tool,” Kingsbury said.

‘FAMILY LOVE STORY’

The program is best known among groups helping victims of domestic violence. Catholic Charities of Idaho’s Domestic Violence Immigration Program provides legal services to individuals and families in southwestern Idaho.

Lawyers typically charge between $3,000 and $8,000 to process a U visa application. Serving a low-income population, CCI charges a flat rate of $750 for requesting certification from law enforcement, gathering evidence, preparing affidavits and completing applications.

“There is nothing more fulfilling than helping someone who has already needlessly suffered, and rather than revictimizing the individual, this is our opportunity to provide help, hope and promote justice,” said Katherine Rubin, an immigration legal services case worker at CCI.

For Marcos Zurita’s immigration lawyer, Angela Levesque, advocating for victims and keeping families together was a chief motive for attending law school.

She said Zurita’s reluctance to go to court for a child custody order is common among undocumented residents, though the duty of state courts is to act in the best interests of the child, not to enforce immigration law. Immigrants also often come from countries where the legal system is corrupt, adding another layer of wariness.

After several years of conflict with the mother of his children, Zurita went to court in 2005. An Ada County judge ordered joint legal custody and child support. The mother had primary physical custody, but Zurita had his kids every other weekend, and for vacation and some holidays.

When the mother tried to take the children to Arizona, the legal system sided with Zurita. Meridian police arrived to find she was loading a U-Haul. “The police said, ‘We’re not here for his status, we’re here to enforce the court order,’ ” recalled Zurita. “That was awesome.”

In 2008, the mom left the state on her own and Zurita was granted custody in her absence. The children moved in with Zurita and his wife, Carlota. The couple married in 2009, but after Zurita’s 2010 deportation, he lost custody.

The mother and children live in Virginia. Now in the U.S. legally, Zurita hired Boise lawyer Victoria Manning Loegering, who has filed a petition to modify custody. Zurita expects the legal system to deliver once again.

“We already have our house and their rooms and everything ready,” said Zurita. “Just to have them like we did before, with the stability and everything.”

Levesque also expects a happy ending, telling the couple: “This is ultimately a family love story, which I hope to see the end of. I’m hoping one day to get that Christmas card with all four of you in the picture.”

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

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