The Philadelphia Inquirer
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.)