Immigrants and crime have dominated the news and opinion pages this summer. But while the portrayal of immigrants as criminals makes for striking headlines, in reality immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than American citizens. Nevertheless, one aspect of the U.S. immigration system that helps to fight violent crime is sadly unappreciated: the U-visa program.
The program rewards documented and undocumented immigrants with visas for cooperating with law enforcement in criminal investigations. Participating immigrants supply necessary information or testimony—crucial elements in building cases against violent criminals, so the program is good for victims of violent crime, communities impacted by criminality, and immigrants themselves, who often are crime victims.
Specifically, the U-visa protects immigrants who fear speaking to law enforcement because they might be deported. The truth is that immigrants who are victims of crime are often more afraid of deportation than of the criminal who attacked them. This in itself indicates how badly immigrants want to live and work in the United States.
Victims of domestic abuse in particular are unlikely to seek help from law enforcement for fear that deportation would tear their families apart. The visa program encourages such victims to speak up. Other crimes included for the visa are abduction, assault, manslaughter, murder, and rape.
The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act created the U-visa program in 2000. However, due to bureaucratic delays it only began to offer visas in 2007. The cap for U-visas is set at 10,000 per year. However, more than 80,000 visas are pending. Applications have increased fourfold since 2009 as awareness of the program has expanded throughout immigrant communities.
In February 2015, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) reported the cap was reached for the sixth consecutive year. Lawmakers clearly need to raise the cap, since the limit is reached so quickly each year. The large backlog and delays make victims less likely to come forward with information. As a result, crimes go unreported and violent criminals go unpunished.
The 2013 Senate immigration bill would have expanded the U-visa limit from 10,000 to 18,000, but the House never voted on the legislation. Trading visas for reducing future crime is smart public policy.
The visa includes a work permit for four years and allows the visa holder to apply for a green card after three. Immigrants have six months following the crime to apply. A U-visa immigrant may sponsor his or her spouse and children as well. Over 115,000 victims and their family members were rewarded visas since the program’s launch.
Some critics claim these visas are subject to fraud and misleading information. But immigrants filing false reports face deportation, a self-enforcing mechanism against fraud. In addition, the U-visa represents only a fraction of total visas offered annually to immigrants. Claims that the program is being used as a backdoor to citizenship are not warranted.
Since the U-visa offers law enforcement a good weapon against violent crime, Congress should dramatically increase the number of U-visas in the next round of comprehensive immigration reform.