Monday, March 21, 2011

The 'crime visa': How 18,000 illegal immigrants to the USA got legal status by being the victim of a crime

More than 18,000 illegal immigrants, plus 14,000 of their relatives, have gained U.S. visas under a new law since 2009 because they were victims of crime.

While many immigrants may still be unaware of the U visa, word is spreading fast in some communities. The controversial rules state that if you are a victim of crime and you cooperate, or are 'helpful' with authorities, then you stand a good chance of getting a U visa.

Since 2009, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) has issued 18,654 and rejected 5,639 U visas — a 77 per cent approval rate. Congress has put a ceiling on the number available annually at 10,000 and this year the USCIS looks on course easily to reach that figure, having received 3,331 applications in the first quarter.

Supporters of the visa says it helps in fighting crime. All too often crimes ranging from robbery and domestic violence to rape and murder have gone unreported because the victims were in the U.S. illegally.

The visa rewards people who may have worked hard, they say, and it helps keep families united because relatives of the crime victim can also get the papers saying they can stay in America.

Critics of the visa say it has created a legal minefield that is being increasingly played out in courtrooms across the country. They also argue that it is wrong to be writing out so many visas at a time when so many Americans cannot get a job.

Both sides would agree on the curious irony that what could be the worst thing to happen to you, being a crime victim in a land where you are trying to stay under the radar, could actually turn out to be the best thing that could happen to you.

Brazilian Mardoqueu Silva was 21 and had overstayed his tourist visa by four years when he landed a job as a pizza delivery man.

On one delivery he was robbed at gunpoint in a ghetto area. First it was a lone gunman. Then a group of others showed up. Mr Silva handed over all he had, jumped in the car and sped back to the pizzeria and quit the job. His boss called the police, officers drove him back to where the mugging occurred and Mr Silva identified the man with the gun.

The hold-up haunted him. He married another undocumented Brazilian and left San Francisco for the town of Tracy, where he became a hairdresser and spent much of his time listening to customers complaining about 'illegals.'

One day in 2009, the deeply religious Silva was reading the Bible and was struck by the line in Romans 13:1: 'Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities.' He went to the Oakland office of immigration attorney Robert Lewis and declared the illegal status of himself and his wife. They sat and chatted and Mr Lewis fired several questions at Mr Silva, including: Have you ever been a crime victim? 'Actually,' Mr Silva answered, 'I have.' Then the process of applying for the then-new U visa began, reports.

Now Mr Silva attributes his visa to an intervention of God through the U.S. government. He opened a bank account, got his driver's licence and plans to go back to Brazil for the first time in 20 years to see his family. He's also been an offered a job as assistant pastor at a Seventh-Day Adventist church in Jacksonville, Florida, which he's accepted.

The U visa was intended to improve immigrants' unwillingness to call law enforcement. But critics ask why people who broke the law to be here should get legal status for doing what most citizens would do anyway. 'How many Americans are victims of violent crime and don't get squat when the trial is over?' says Richard McCain, who was tried and acquitted for domestic violence against his Mexican-born male partner. 'What does the illegal immigrant get? A chance to live here as an American.'

Some say it's unfair to those who wait abroad for years for visas.

Defence lawyers say some applicants are defrauding the system by taking cases to court they otherwise wouldn't in the hope of getting a visa. 'Getting status in the United States is such a big deal that it really can create an incentive, sometimes just to exaggerate, and sometimes to flat out fabricate,' says Stephanie Wargo, a San Francisco lawyer who handled a sexual assault case in which the complaining witness was applying for a U visa. 'I don't know the solution, but it is a problem.'

One of the criticisms of the programme is that it is too generous in handing out visas. Jessica Vaughan, the director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative think tank, attacks the provision that says crime victims can apply for a U visa even after they've been officially told they're being deported. 'It's their last-ditch Hail Mary pass to avoid being sent home,' she said.

Victims can get legal status for their spouses and children, even those living in another country. Victims under 21 can sponsor their parents and unmarried siblings under 18. In cases of murder or manslaughter, spouses and children can apply as 'indirect victims,' even if they didn't witness the crime.


Rioting "refugees" on Australian island should be prosecuted

RIOTERS responsible for damaging large sections of the Christmas Island immigration detention centre should face criminal action, the Federal Opposition says. Accommodation marquees and buildings were burnt down during a riot by up to 300 detainees in the past week. Federal Police used tear gas and "bean-bag" bullets to quell the riots.

"Crimes were committed during these past seven days on Christmas Island," Opposition Immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said in Canberra today. "These crimes need to be prosecuted and the consequences need to be imposed." Mr Morrison said anyone involved in the riot should have their applications for asylum suspended immediately.

The call for legal action was backed by Labor MP Kelvin Thompson. "I certainly think that people who behave in that way are not suitable to be permanent residents of Australia," he said.

However, backbench colleague Amanda Rishworth did not go as far. "In terms of the individual cases obviously that's an individual matter that'll be worked through," she said.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard said it was up to the Australian Federal Police to decide whether charges should be laid. It was not for government to "make a guess", she said in Canberra. "Police have to go through the proper procedures."

Ms Gillard said she expected the police to investigate the riot on Christmas Island in exactly the same way as they would consider a similar incident in any capital city.


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