ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Every year, thousands of undocumented immigrants are given legal status in the U.S. because they've been victims of a crime here. They get what are called U visas. Demand for the visas far outstrips the number of them available, and some immigrants say police are not willing to help them through the process. Yellowstone Public Radio's Nate Hegyi reports.
NATE HEGYI, BYLINE: Family photos cover the walls of this ranch house in eastern Montana. There are pictures of a dad holding a baby, a son playing high school football. That son, Juan Orozco, is sitting on a couch next to his mother. He says after his dad came home from jail a few years ago, he just wasn't the same.
JUAN OROZCO: He has bad depression. He can't sleep. He doesn't want to eat.
HEGYI: Juan's father, Audemio Orozco-Ramirez, says he was raped by an inmate at the Jefferson County jail. Orozco-Ramirez, a father of seven, is undocumented. He had been picked up by local sheriffs to be turned over to immigration. Then he was released while investigators looked into his alleged rape. His lawyer at the time, Shahid Haque, said a U visa was Orozco-Ramirez's best chance to stay in the U.S. Victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and other serious crimes are eligible.
SHAHID HAQUE: All Jefferson County had to do was simply certify that a crime had happened and that he had cooperated with law enforcement.
HEGYI: Orozco-Ramirez cooperated, but the sheriff's department said it couldn't find evidence he was sexually assaulted. A surveillance video that would have captured the crime was missing. Orozco-Ramirez eventually sued in civil court, and county officials agreed to pay him a settlement of $125,000, though they didn't admit wrongdoing. Sheriffs declined to comment on the U visa, but according to his lawyer, Shahid Haque, they refused to sign a form Orozco-Ramirez needed for his application attesting that he was, in fact, a victim.
HAQUE: The role of law enforcement in this whole process is really the biggest problem.
HEGYI: Federal officials make the final decision on who gets a visa, but the process often starts at the local level with this form. The rules give local law enforcement a lot of leeway. They can sign off even if criminal charges haven't been filed. The U visa was created to ensure undocumented victims come forward. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says it works with local law enforcement to make sure victims apply. But weighing in on what is ultimately a federal matter makes some local officials uncomfortable, says Leslye Orloff. She travels the country on a grant from the Justice Department training local law enforcement on U visas.
LESLYE ORLOFF: Many don't know about the program, don't fully understand it, have misinformation about it, and miss lots and lots of opportunities to fight crime in their communities and help crime victims.
HEGYI: But that's not the only hurdle to getting a U visa. There's a growing backlog as more and more people apply, way more than the yearly cap of 10,000 victims, so it can take years to get the visa. Former Republican Representative Connie Morella of Maryland says when she cosponsored a bill to create the U visa back in 2000, she agreed to that cap just to get it passed.
CONNIE MORELLA: It was sort of guesswork, in a way. The 10,000 sounded like it might be a good number to start with. Let's just see how many applications we get, and then we can always increase it.
HEGYI: Lawmakers tried to do that in 2012, but opponents argued the cap was a safeguard against fraud. At home in Montana, Orozco-Ramirez's son, Juan, says he believes his father was raped, that he would never make something like that up. His mother, Amparo, says she misses her husband.
AMPARO OROZCO: (Speaking Spanish).
J. OROZCO: She says no one has the words to say, you know, what we're feeling or what we've been through.
A. OROZCO: (Speaking Spanish).
J. OROZCO: It's very difficult.
HEGYI: Orozco-Ramirez expects to be deported in the next couple of weeks. Other immigrants are still waiting for a U visa. There are nearly 200,000 applications pending. That's 20 times the annual cap. For NPR News, I'm Nate Hegyi in Montana.
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