Special visas fast-track illegal immigrants to residency

The Philadelphia Inquirer
Published:  Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011 –  1:00 am

PHILADELPHIA —     The federal government has  an unusual fast track to legal residency for illegal immigrants.

     Antonio Luna’s ticket was a bullet in the back.

     The 30-year-old Mexican, who slipped into the United States in 2000, was  delivering pizza to a narrow South Philadelphia street on a night two summers  ago.   

         The customer on the steps, in a hat raked low, took his time paying  – time enough for another man to leap from between parked cars and thrust a gun  against Luna’s forehead.

     Luna gave up the food, his cellphone, and $140. The first man ransacked  his car; the gunman forced him to the ground. “He told me, ‘If you want to run,  run,’ ” Luna recounted recently. “I didn’t have a chance because he shot me” in  the lower back.

     Gushing blood, howling in pain, thinking he might die, Luna never  imagined how the assault would better not only his life, but also that of his  wife and two children.

     The next morning, detectives came to his bed at Thomas Jefferson  University Hospital. They told him they did not care about his immigration  status. They just wanted his help. He immediately picked the gunman from a book  of mug shots. Police made the arrest that night.

     For aiding the investigation, Luna got a reward: a “U visa.”

     It grants residency to illegal immigrants who have been victims of  violence and cooperate with law enforcement. That could range from giving  information to police to testifying at trial.

     A U visa includes a work permit good for four years. After three years,  the victim can apply for a green card, allowing permanent work-authorization and  residency.

     In the nearly three years that U visas have been available, about 25,000  victims and 19,000 relatives have received them. The number living in the  Philadelphia area was not immediately available from U.S. Citizenship and  Immigration Services.

     Lawyers who represent illegal immigrants say their risk of abuse,  exploitation and victimization is high because they fear deportation if they  report a crime.

     For years, Luna had tried to live small, to avoid notice.

     After he was shot, his application for a U visa was guided by Brenda  Gorski, a lawyer at Philadelphia’s pro-immigrant Nationalities Services Center.  Instead of dying, he said, he was “reborn.” Because U visas are “derivative” –  they include immediate family members – his wife, Beatriz, 27, mother of their  two U.S.-born children, became a legal resident, too.

     Congress created not only U visas, but also T visas, for victims of  human trafficking.

     The government defines that crime as enslavement, in which the  trafficker uses fraud or coercion to recruit people for forced labor and, often,  sexual exploitation.

     Immigration experts differentiate between human trafficking and human  smuggling. A smuggled person consents to being spirited over the border and goes  free in America. But trafficked victims are bound to their traffickers, who  ensure their dependency by taking their money and identification. They are  forced to work at menial jobs, typically nail salons and massage parlors, and  are under constant surveillance. If they try to escape, they are beaten or  blackmailed.

     “If victims come forward, there is the possibility of relief. We don’t  want them to stand in the shadows anymore,” said Tony Bryson, director of U.S.  Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) in Philadelphia, which recently held a  daylong training about U and T visas for police and advocacy groups.

     Up to 10,000 U visas may be issued annually, with no limit for immediate  family members. The annual cap on T visas is 5,000, but fewer than 450 have ever  been approved in a single year, because so few trafficking victims are willing  to apply.

     They fear reprisals not only against themselves; trafficking networks  routinely make threats against family members still in the homeland.

     As a result, the T-visa program is “woefully undersubscribed,” said Rose  Hartmann, a federal immigration officer who attended the recent Philadelphia  training.

     Groups urging restrictions on illegal immigration, including the  Federation for American Immigration Reform and the Center for Immigration  Studies, contend that U and T visas make the immigration system too generous by  handing out work permits at a time when the country lacks jobs for its citizens.  And the lure of a green card, they say, can entice some immigrants to report  bogus crimes.

     Immigrant advocates say the number of green cards granted under the U  and T programs is a mere fraction of the million cards issued annually.  Immigrants who file false reports or commit perjury, they note, are subject to  prosecution and deportation.

     All applications are channeled to the USCIS service center in  Burlington, Vt., where 73 adjudications officers and supervisors authenticate  them. Supporting paperwork usually includes medical and police reports, as well  as the law enforcement letter certifying cooperation.



     A federal trial set for next month in Philadelphia holds the possibility  of T visas for victims of trafficking.

     The case involves five brothers from Ukraine, ages 35 to 51, known to  prosecutors as “the Botsvynyuk boys.” Last summer, they were charged with  forcing about 30 illegal immigrants to work as virtual slaves from 2000 to 2007  cleaning department stores and supermarkets in the Philadelphia area.

     According to the indictment, the brothers promised the immigrants they  would earn $500 a month, with free room and board. Instead, they slept five to a  room on dirty mattresses, worked for little or nothing, were told they had to  pay off transportation costs of $10,000 to $50,000. They were beaten, and a  female victim repeatedly raped.

     Violence was threatened against family still living in Ukraine, the  indictment said. For instance, one brother said he would place a worker’s  9-year-old daughter into prostitution to pay off the family debt.

     Patty Hartman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in  Philadelphia, said the immigrant workers have remained in Philadelphia and might  be called to testify at trial. Their cooperation could make them eligible for T  visas.


     As part of a T-visa awareness campaign launched last month, the federal  government produced two provocative one-minute public service videos about  sexual slavery and forced labor.

     The videos, airing nationally in Spanish and English markets, encourage  viewers to report suspicious activity in the hope, said U.S. Immigration and  Customs Enforcement Deputy Director Kumar Kibble, of reaching “victims who have  endured so much pain.”

          (Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer Juliana Schatz contributed to  this report.)

Read more: http://www.sacbee.com/2011/08/28/3867256/special-visas-fast-track-illegal.html#ixzz1WXvqqur8

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