RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Let's look now at something that's supposed to protect immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally but who also want to help police by reporting crimes. Congress created the U visa so they don't have to fear deportation if they come forward. It offers legal status to victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and other crimes if those victims help in the investigation. But as NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports, getting the visa is not easy.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Who gets a U visa is decided at the federal level by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. But if you want to apply for one, you often have to start locally at the police department.
(SOUNDBITE OF PUBLIC HEARING)
C.J. WANG: Hi, thank you. Thank you for holding this public hearing.
LO WANG: Immigration attorneys like C.J. Wang recently gave testimony to officials at New York City's police department. That's because police can play an important part in the U visa process. A law enforcement officer or a government official must sign a form as part of the application, certifying that an immigrant suffered from a serious crime and was helpful with the investigation.
WANG: All certification is is attesting to the fact that the victim has cooperated.
LO WANG: Wang says the NYPD has been slow to certify applications. And for immigrant advocates like her, that means...
WANG: A lot of paper chasing, a lot of even going to headquarters to just find out who deals with this.
LO WANG: Zoey Jones is an immigration attorney with Brooklyn Defender Services. She says the wait for certification can sometimes last more than a year.
ZOEY JONES: The delay can result in somebody's deportation. It can result in a delay in somebody getting work authorization and not being able to support their family.
LO WANG: The NYPD declined to be interviewed, but some immigrant advocates outside of New York are now looking at the NYPD as a test case. That's because it recently proposed a rule with new deadlines to streamline the U visa process.
DEBORAH WEISSMAN: It could very well be a model for other law enforcement agencies.
LO WANG: That was Deborah Weissman, a professor at the University of North Carolina's law school. She's conducted a nationwide survey of U visa policies.
WEISSMAN: What we see is a real mishmash of policies, so much so that it seems that this federal statute has no uniform application whatsoever.
LO WANG: Weissman says some police departments refuse to sign off on any U visa applications.
WEISSMAN: They seem to think that if they certify, they are granting an undocumented immigrant legal status in the United States. And that is just not true.
LO WANG: Only federal immigration officials can grant a U visa after a background check. Still, other police departments may be reluctant to certify applications because of politics, according to Jim Pasco, the executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police.
JIM PASCO: Police chiefs, after all, are not free agents. They work for mayors or a city manager or city councils. And they are going to reflect the judgment of that executive who employs them.
LO WANG: In California, a new state law now requires police and government officials, like prosecutors and judges, to certify U visa applications for eligible immigrants. And in Arizona, the Phoenix Police Department is working on plans to allow immigrants to ask for certifications online, says Lieutenant Ed DeCastro.
ED DECASTRO: If they're willing to assist us to catch a murderer or an armed robber or a home invader, then they deserve the benefit of the doubt that they will ultimately be a good citizen.
LO WANG: Though it's one thing to be a good Samaritan who applies for a U visa, and it's another to actually get one. Right now, there's a backlog of almost 64,000 applications, but only 10,000 can be approved a year. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York.
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