Mon, Feb 09, 2009 - Page 7 News List

US ‘crime victim visa’ scheme not working: activists

AP , LOS ANGELES

A 2000 federal law promised visas to illegal immigrants who were crime victims if they came out of the shadows to help police catch their attackers. More than 13,000 people took the government’s offer, but so far only 65 — just 0.5 percent — have gotten their reward.

The figures, provided by US Citizenship and Immigration Services, outraged immigrant advocates. They say the problem with the so-called “crime victim visa” has been twofold: The government took years to come up with rules and now that they are in place, many law enforcement agencies are reluctant to provide the required written support so victims can apply.

“There’s no rational reason why it should take the federal government eight years to implement a law other than there’s a callous disregard for the rights of crime victims Congress intended to benefit for cooperating with law enforcement,” said Peter Schey, executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law in Los Angeles.

Lawmakers created the visa to encourage illegal immigrants to report crimes such as rape, torture and domestic violence without fear of deportation, and to help law enforcement crack down on violent crime.

It took until 2007 for the agency to set the rules, although immigrants could apply before then and could stay in the US if their cases appeared to fit the criteria.

The number of visas is capped at 10,000 per year. The most recent statistics showed that only 85 had even been processed by the end of last year — 65 were approved and 20 denied.

While the visa application is free, the government requires many illegal immigrants to apply for a waiver that costs US$545, more than some victims could afford. Under criticism, the government changed the rules last December to waive the fee on a case-by-case basis.

Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman Chris Rhatigan said the government is moving to address the problems, increasing staffing to more quickly review visa applications and meeting with local law enforcement officials to teach them about the program.

“We’re trying to do the right thing,” Rhatigan said.

The law allowed any police officer, prosecutor or judge to sign off on a victim’s application as long as the victim cooperated with law enforcement or was deemed likely to do so in the future.

But the rules stipulate that only senior law enforcement officials can endorse a visa application. That has prompted a number of police and prosecuting agencies to craft their own policies on who should qualify.

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