On a cold morning last December, someone saw a confused young girl wandering alone at a Milford gas station and called police. The 12-year-old Salvadoran girl, through a Spanish police interpreter, said she was kidnapped and raped in a hotel room less than a mile away by a man her parents had paid to transport her through the United States.
In July of 2004, a Mexican woman was parked outside a supermarket in Orange with her 2-year-old son when a man jumped into the driver's seat and drove off with them. The woman later told police that she was repeatedly raped in front of her hysterical son and that the man threatened to kill them both.
Even though the young girl and the woman entered the country illegally, both may be eligible to work and live in the United States under the terms of a federal visa available to illegal immigrants who are victims of a crime.
Congress authorized the "U-visas" under the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act in 2000, recognizing that crime victims, particularly women and children, hesitate to call police for fear of being deported.
In October, after seven years of bureaucratic delays, the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services started issuing the visas. Each year 10,000 will be available to victims — and their spouses and children — of a long list of specific crimes that include rape, torture, trafficking, incest, prostitution and kidnapping.
State victim advocates and social service agencies are trying to make local police aware of the visas, which they welcome for humanitarian reasons and as a way to help bring violent criminals to justice.
"Right now the goal is get the word out that these visas exist," said Joanne Lewis, a legal aid attorney with Connecticut Legal Services. "Hopefully, if people know they won't be deported, they won't be afraid of filing a complaint."
Applicants for the visa have to be certified by a law enforcement official, prosecutor or judge as victims of a crime and cooperating in the investigation or prosecution.
Advocates want police departments to designate one officer to certify U-visa applications.
Stamford police Lt. John Forlivio had never heard of a U-visa until he became the department's point person.
Since October, Forlivio, who heads the department's crimes-against-persons division, has certified one visa application for a 12-year-old Mexican girl in Stamford who was raped by a family member. He's investigating a second application involving a Honduran woman who was smuggled into the country by her abusive husband, who repeatedly beat her. In both cases the victims cooperated with police and arrests have been made.
"If you are in this business you see how many times a crime occurs and the victim's address doesn't match up, someone doesn't want to be found because they are afraid of their immigration status. This could really assist us in solving more crimes," Forlivio said.
Forlivio knows the visas can be controversial, given the nation's debate on illegal immigration and calls to secure U.S. borders and enforce immigration laws.
Critics of the visa cite the potential for immigrants reporting false crimes. Forlivio said safeguards in the law — such as the requirement that the immigrant be a direct victim from a list of more than 20 specific crimes and have suffered "substantial physical or mental abuse" — are there to ensure the visas go to people with legitimate needs.
Also, immigrants who come forward to police run the risk of deportation if their crime stories don't add up.
"I know that people have concerns about the visa being abused, but [law enforcement] can't pick and choose the laws to enforce," he said.
In January the U.S. attorney's office joined with legal aid attorneys to train police officers on the visa. It also sent advisories to police departments in the state, suggesting they assign one officer to handle the visas.
"Police should be aware of the visas because many of the crimes covered are sex-based offenses that are more likely to come through local or state police," said Krishna R. Patel, an assistant attorney who chairs the smuggling and trafficking of persons task force.Immigrants who are issued a U-visa can legally work and live in the United States for up to three years. At the end of three years, immigrants can apply for a green card.
Many state prosecutors and police officers see the visas as a tool in solving criminal activity, even in cities like Danbury, which has become a battleground in the war over illegal immigration.
Danbury police Capt. Mitchell Weston said the visas will help police solve crimes against illegal immigrants, but they will also help police arrest immigrants who commit crimes.
"There are a lot of the crimes committed by immigrants on the immigrant population, document fraud and scams, domestics, robberies, but it's hard to track some of these people down," Weston said.
Since 2000, when Congress first created the U-visas, 11,830 immigrants applied. Of those, 10,846 immigrants were granted work permits and interim relief from deportation. Now, those immigrants will be considered for legal status.
State's Attorney Kevin Lawlor, who successfully prosecuted the case involving the Mexican woman who was raped in Orange in 2004, wrote a letter certifying that she was the victim of a qualifying crime under the U-visa. The man is serving a life sentence in prison.
"Undocumented aliens don't tend to report their crimes," Lawlor said. "My concern is getting bad people off the streets, and the only way we can do that is with the public's help."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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