Undocumented immigrants allowed to stay in Collier as crime victims, witnesses

The courts

The courts

To apply for the U-visa, which went into effect in 2008, victims and witnesses of qualifying crimes must prove they cooperated with law enforcement and the court system in moving the case forward, which can include testifying against a suspect.

* * * * *

From 2009, when federal data collection on U-visas began, through August of this year, about 63,000 individuals have received them, a 70 percent approval rating, according to an October report by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which handles visa applications.

* * * * *

The Collier County Sheriff's Office has signed off on about 330 U-visa certifications, which are necessary to prove a victim cooperated with the investigation. The State Attorney's Office has received about 200 such requests for Lee County.

— Violence followed Maria from Mexico to Naples.

A decade of physical and emotional abuse from her husband didn't stop when the couple started a new life in a new country, and it would go on for years longer, until a day in 2005 when a neighbor reported his drunken aggression to police.

"That was the beginning," Maria said. "My salvation."

Like hundreds of undocumented immigrants in Collier and Lee counties in recent years, Maria applied for a type of visa that allows crime victims and witnesses to live and work legally — though temporarily — in the U.S.

Now, the man who threatened the lives of their children is no longer a part of their family.

Maria, 33, whose last name isn't being used because the Daily News typically doesn't publish the name of domestic violence victims, is now divorced and living with her three children on a quiet street that's a 10-minute drive from her full-time restaurant job.

"I spent every day waiting, praying. In 2009, we got the first visa. And then..."

She sighed heavily and exhaled sharply as she sat at her dining room table, the kids in the next room watching a movie.

"I could breathe legally. Drive legally. Get my license," Maria said. "That's when my life changed."

* * * * *

To apply for the U-visa, which went into effect in 2008, victims and witnesses of qualifying crimes must prove they cooperated with law enforcement and the court system in moving the case forward, which can include testifying against a suspect.

It's designed to encourage victims like Maria to report crimes, not live in fear because of their unlawful status. There is no statute of limitations on when a crime must have occurred for the victim to qualify for the visa.

"We want to ensure that all people that are here in the United States ... enjoy a confidence in law enforcement, and feel that they are safe to report crimes, regardless of their status," said Alex Vernon, acting director of Asylum and Immigrant Rights Law Clinic at Ave Maria School of Law, where he works with law students on local U-visa cases.

"There's a lot of vulnerable people out there," Vernon added. "It's a comfort to me that we're at least able to be in a position to help them."

Immigrant rights activists have long argued that immigration enforcement programs involving local law enforcement, like 287(g), which allows trained deputies to act as federal immigration agents, inhibits crime reporting out of fear of deportation.

"Victims in our community don't have to worry about coming forward," said Capt. Chris Roberts of the Collier County Sheriff's Office. "We're not trying to deport victims and witnesses to crimes."

A victim's advocate from a law enforcement agency is often the liaison who informs victims of their options, including the U-visa.

Maria recalled that information from the Collier County Sheriff's Office first prompted her to reach out to the Shelter for Abused Women & Children in Naples, where staff helped her pull together her visa application.

Captain Chris Roberts of the Collier County Sheriff's Office in a September 2009 file photo. David Albers/ Staff

Photo by DAVID ALBERS

Captain Chris Roberts of the Collier County Sheriff's Office in a September 2009 file photo. David Albers/ Staff

Abusers can use someone's undocumented status as blackmail to silence them. There also can be threats to abscond with any children that a couple shares, or to turn the abuse victim over to police.

"That's one of the biggest fears that domestic violence (victims) go through," said Rossana Lucero, who works with women on U-visa applications at the Shelter for Abused Women & Children. "The abuser manipulates in one way or another, and it's with legal status."

Maria's ex-husband didn't use threats of deportation; he used other scare tactics.

"He would have custody," she explained, her voice dropping to a whisper, "and call and say 'you know what I'm going to do with your kids? I'm going to kill them and leave them at your doorstep, to show you just who I am ...'"

According to Lucero, 60 to 70 percent of the cases she has processed are victims of domestic violence, though applicants can be victims or witnesses of 26 crimes, including felony assault, rape, extortion or incest.

The victim must have suffered "substantial physical or mental abuse" from the crime, have information about it, and be helpful in the prosecution or investigation of the crime.

The Collier County Sheriff's Office has signed off on about 330 U-visa certifications, which are necessary to prove a victim cooperated with the investigation. The State Attorney's Office has received about 200 such requests for Lee County.

From 2009, when federal data collection on U-visas began, through August of this year, about 63,000 individuals have received them, a 70 percent approval rating, according to an October report by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which handles visa applications.

There are cases in which law enforcement or other qualifying agencies won't sign off on the certificates of cooperation.

The Lee County Sheriff's Office received 85 U-visa certification requests in recent years, but hasn't approved any. Agency officials said it was because the cases didn't meet the necessary criteria.

* * * * *

Even with the paperwork showing her abuse, Maria had a few false starts at leaving her abuser.

She knew she qualified for the visa, but after 13 years with her now ex-husband, her self-esteem had plummeted.

She felt incapacitated, with limited English, in a country where she had no support. Her brother, who lives in the area, told her to endure the abuse if she couldn't afford to live on her own with the children.

Through Legal Aid Service of Collier County, she got a divorce and a restraining order against her ex- and, despite an episode in which he smashed the windows of her car, ultimately got him out of their lives.

He still lives in the area, but there is no contact, not even with the children. There isn't any financial support either.

She fought for it initially, but she doesn't care anymore. Self-sufficiency is her mantra.

"My pride is my pride. And nobody is going to take that away from me," Maria said. "I survived it all."

The son she brought as a child from Mexico 10 years ago is now a high school freshman with a learner's permit, and they are both proud they can legally drive the family's SUV.

Then, in early November, they got their green cards. Both are now on the path to U.S. citizenship.

"I don't even know how to describe it. It means my son has a future," Maria said. "It's a future for him, better than the one I had."

© 2012 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

  • Discuss
  • Print

Related Stories

Related Links

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Share your thoughts

Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned. Click here for our full user agreement.

Comments can be shared on Facebook and Yahoo!. Add both options by connecting your profiles.

Features