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U-visa might take a U-turn

By Jazmine Ulloa
San Antonio Express-News
A police report that Patricia Martinez keeps folded in a large Ziploc bag tells some of the story she wants to forget.

A man, it states, walked into the small travel agency in Los Angeles where she worked, chatted her up, then grabbed her arm and thrust her against a wall, fondling her breasts and trying to disrobe her.

More than eight years later, in the living room of her San Antonio home, Martinez, now 27, could still recall his face, disheveled hair and ragged clothing. He was larger than her and stronger, she said. The struggle seemed to last hours. Then he fled and she sank to the floor and wept, more from her feelings of impotence than anything else.

Martinez, a petite woman with short, brown hair from Monterrey, Mexico, was living in the United States illegally when the assault occurred on Dec. 28, 2002. To call police seemed “well, illogical,” she said.

But she did. It led to something she hadn’t expected — a U-visa, temporary legal status for crime victims who cooperate in criminal investigations, especially cases of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking. Some recipients can apply for permanent residency after three years.

Holding up the police report, Martinez said, “This has changed my life.”

Most of the 5,825 U-visas granted in 2009 and 10,073 in 2010 have stemmed from domestic violence cases, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Congress approved the U-visa through the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, almost unanimously in 2000 to encourage immigrants to report crime without fear of deportation, forge trust between them and local authorities and thus strengthen crime fighting in their communities.

But a push among Texas lawmakers to prohibit “sanctuary cities” and other measures that would link local police work to immigration enforcement could derail those efforts, critics say, creating ambiguity for officers and crime victims who don’t want to be questioned about their citizenship.

HB 12, expected to hit the House floor early next month for debate, would not require officers to check the immigration status of individuals they detain but it would prevent local governments from denying them the ability to do so, at the risk of losing state funds. Proponents say the bill aims to stop local jurisdictions from protecting illegal immigrants but wouldn’t threaten efforts to help crime victims.

“Contrary to arguments made by some, there is no conflict between U-visas and banning sanctuary city policies,” said U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “Illegal immigrant victims of crime will not be prevented from obtaining U-visas if sanctuary city policies are banned.”

Some Texas police chiefs and sheriffs, including San Antonio Police Chief William McManus, have lobbied against HB 12, meeting at the state Capitol in February to denounce a slew of what they termed “Arizona-style” bills they said would undermine cooperation between officers and otherwise law-abiding people who are here illegally.

El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles said local police have a more urgent need to build partnerships with the public than federal law enforcement.

“We need the whole community to trust and respect us and to call us and help us to prevent crime, and we don’t want to tear that down,” Wiles said in a recent interview while at a border sheriffs’ meeting in San Antonio. He called HB 12 “just a political smokescreen because we already have plenty of room under the existing laws to do what we have to do.”

Programs such as Secure Communities, which compares fingerprints of those arrested to Department of Homeland Security and FBI databases, have the benefit of keeping local officers from having to enforce immigration laws, a job they’re not trained to do and that would be especially difficult in family violence cases, Bexar County Sheriff Amadeo Ortiz said.

“Who do you ask (about their status)?” Ortiz said. “Do you ask everyone you come into contact with? Who knows? They could be from Russia or Canada, and those people are usually not targeted.”

Officers want to solve cases and keep the streets safe regardless “of who you are or where you’re from,” added his deputy chief for patrols, Dale Bennett. “There is an inherent propensity to shy away from law enforcement that makes solving cases difficult in our current population,” he said. “Adding the potential threat of arrest and deportation (to those who report crimes) increases that risk of never solving cases that much greater.”

Because of those concerns, state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, filed a bill that would keep authorities from asking victims and witnesses their immigration status, but observers say it is not likely to make it out of committee.

And if those people fail to come forward, investigators stand to lose valuable witnesses, said Lee J. Terán, a St. Mary’s University law professor. One of her clients was shot and severely beaten by drug traffickers who left him for dead, but survived and helped authorities capture his assailants, Teran said.
“In this case, as well as in others (with different witnesses), the police really needed him to prosecute the perpetrators,” she said.

Today, Martinez is studying for a graduate school entrance exam and will seek a part-time job when her two children are a little older. Because her U-visa’s benefits extend to her former boyfriend, now her husband, he is working at a local restaurant to support the family.

She remembers how stunned she was to see Los Angeles police rush to respond to her report of the assault. They even searched the streets for her attacker with dogs and a helicopter but were unable to find him. Months later, Martinez nervously picked him out of a photo lineup. She hadn’t even wanted to go to the station, she recalled.

“I was afraid he would come back one day to finish what he started,” she said

As published April 17, 2011


U-visa applicants mired in bureaucracy

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
He erupted in rage one night, slamming her against the wall while she wrapped her arms around her stomach in an effort to protect her womb. He stormed through their home, yelling, cursing, “breaking everything in sight,” she recalls.

When he left, shattered glass and tears were riddled across the floor. She called the police, then made the decision — perhaps the toughest she has ever made — to press charges against her husband. An immigrant woman from the small Mexican town of Silacayoapan, she had no legal documents, no steady income, no family members nearby.

“I felt I had nowhere to go, that he was my only salvation, that without him, I could not do anything,” she says, taking a deep breath. But she had been six months pregnant, and her son, then 16 years old, had witnessed the abuse.

Though she did not know it then, the police report she filed that night in 2006 would become her way out. By coming forward to the authorities, the immigrant woman, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation from her husband, became eligible for a U Visa, a temporary legal status for victims of violent crime in the United States who cooperate in criminal investigations.

The visa was created through the Victims of Violence and Trafficking Act in 2000 to encourage a vulnerable immigrant population to report crime without fear of deportation. But it took seven years for the Department of Homeland Security to issue the regulations that would govern the application process, a delay that has mired legal services agencies aiding visa petitioners in a bureaucratic tangle.

From 2000 until October 2007, while the rules were under negotiation, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services did not grant the visa, but “interim relief,” which had to be renewed every year and authorized work and travel but not legal status.

Next week, the interim relief period ends — meaning that by then, all who have qualified for the temporary status should have filed their paperwork again under the new application process.

That has tied back legal service agencies in the last two years. Before the formal rules were established, agencies had created their own forms, working out the process as they went along, said Celestino Gallegos, an immigration attorney at Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid in Edinburg.

“It was a piecemeal, time-consuming process,” he said, and in a way “revictimized” immigrants by its sluggishness and unpredictability. Now the new regulations require additional documentation or records that some petitioners no longer have, putting victims through another long process, Gallegos said.

“Congress intended for victims to have immigration relief. I do not think Congress intended for them to be bogged down in red tape,” he said. “It should have been, from the very get-go, a simple process.”

Some immigration advocates said bureaucratic reshuffling after Sept. 11 caused the delay in regulations, others said the change in administration has now accelerated the process. But establishing criteria and training for immigration officials was a complex procedure, which took time, said Chris Rhatigan, spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The national immigration agency is making progress, she said. It can grant visas for up to 10,000 petitioners plus family members each fiscal year, according to the limit set by Congress. While a little more than 50 were approved in 2008, about 6,000 were approved the following year, Rhatigan said. This year, the agency has begun to process more than 11,000 requests.

“We really have done a tremendous effort to reach out to those people who have not responded to our request for supplemental information (for the visa application),” she said.

Proyecto Libertad, an immigration legal services agency in Harlingen, has helped about 80 petitioners qualify for the visa and, like other area service agencies, has dozens of more applications pending. Despite the backlog, Juan Rios, an assistant coordinator at Proyecto, urged people not to become discouraged.

“We are helping people, not at the rhythm we want, not at the level the community is demanding,” he said. “But we want people to still come in and ask questions and to know what rights they have.”

Immigrants also should not be afraid to report crime to the authorities, said Cameron County Sheriff Omar Lucio. Law enforcement officials have viewed the U Visa program with skepticism in the past, believing it encouraged some to exaggerate crimes or create scams. But on the positive side, the program is a way for authorities to build trust among immigrant communities, Lucio said.

“People can come here and report a crime and they will not be questioned about their citizenship,” he said.

Like the woman from Silacayoapan, at least three-fourths of applicants from across the country and more than half in the Rio Grande Valley have been victims of domestic violence, according to immigration services agencies.

For many women, the choice to call the police comes with great pain, Maria Salas Aquino said. She endured an abusive relationship for more than a decade before she finally reported her husband to the authorities.

Her husband’s blows were first psychological, she says. He took away her pride, her beauty and her self-worth. The physical abuse followed.

She thought he would change — that she could change him. And she had withstood it all, she recalls, even his addiction to cocaine. But seeing him wring her teenage child’s shirt and lift him off the ground one day in June tore her apart.

She dialed 9-1-1 and arrived at local women’s shelter soon after. There, she learned she could apply for a U Visa even though she and her husband were in the country illegally.

The process was long, but it opened doors, Aquino said. The day she got her first job at a local tortilleria, she cried out of joy.

“At the shelter, we would have night discussions. We would think, ‘poor him,’ ‘poor him.’ That is when we learned to think, ‘poor me,’ why should I tolerate this?” she said. “I am very happy now, my children are safe. I am grateful.”

As published Jan. 24, 2010


Mexican citizens looking for sanctuary

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
A middle-aged woman was driving along a busy street in Matamoros on her way to visit family, when she passed a Soriana grocery store barricaded by a throng of Mexican soldiers and vehicles. Gunshots cracked in the distance.

She kept her eyes on the road and pressed on the gas, following what many Mexican citizens consider unspoken policy: Look away. Mind your own business. Keep your mouth shut.

“These things don’t come out in the newspapers,” said the woman, who works as a housemaid in Brownsville and asked her name not be used out of concern for her family’s safety.

In recent months, she and other residents say, sporadic shootouts in broad daylight, like this one, seem to have become more common in Matamoros, once one of the quieter cities along the Texas-Mexico border.

With little trust in authorities and few reports from the media, it is difficult for Mexican residents to discern what is fact from hearsay. But to be caught in the crossfire is a legitimate fear, families say — even more distressing, is constantly seeing their schools shut down, their news outlets silenced and their streets blockaded by Mexican soldiers and military trucks.

Such concerns are driving Matamoros families away from the border city and into the Rio Grande Valley, residential and commercial real estate agents said. The migration follows a steady stream of Mexican nationals, including journalists, officials and business leaders, who have relocated to the United States since Mexican President Felipe Calderón launched a sweeping battle against drug cartels in 2006.

But families from Matamoros have only been moving to the Valley in higher numbers since last year, real estate agents said. And some brokers noted calls from Mexican nationals had become even more frequent in the last six months.

“They call and tell me, ‘I need (a home) fast. I want to take my children out of school. There is too much danger here,’ ” said Sandy Lee Galvan, a real estate agent with Century 21 Johnston Company in Brownsville. “Many want to pay cash upfront.”

‘Violence escalates, migration escalates’

Drug war violence along the Mexican side of the lower Texas borderline began to intensify in late February, first after a bloody turf battle erupted between the Gulf Cartel and its former armed wing, the Zetas, and now has amplified as drug cartel men increase their assaults against the Mexican army.

“As the violence escalates, the migration escalates,” said Mary McGowan, broker and owner of All Star Realty in Brownsville.

Real estate agents are taking inquiries from Matamoros, Monterrey, Victoria and Valle Hermoso, and even from families living farther in the interior of Mexico. Many Mexican nationals are not stopping in the Valley but choosing to go farther north, to San Antonio or Austin, and even into other states, agents said.

But those who do stay prefer gated communities and condos throughout Brownsville and Rancho Viejo. Near McAllen, the sweetest deals are in the Sharyland community, said Leanne Richards, broker for Trendsetters Realty in McAllen.

“Everyone wants to get their children into the Sharyland school district,” said Richards, who has worked in real estate in the Valley since 1994. In the past, Richards recalls few Mexican families calling in to inquire about homes in the area. When they did buy, it took time and they purchased expensive $500,000 homes, she said.

Now people are buying properties costing between $80,000 to $120,000 because they want to move out soon. Many also choose to rent.

“They tell me, ‘We are not going back to Mexico, we are afraid,’” Richards said.

The high number of asylum applications from Mexico in part shows this increase in migration. The number of people applying for asylum under “credible fear of persecution,” jumped from 179 in 2007 to 312 in 2008, and increased again slightly to 338 in 2009. These figures were based on people who pleaded for asylum at the nation’s southern ports of entry, according to U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Separate statistics collected from U.S. immigration courts showed an increase in the number of asylum petitions from Mexico in the first two years since Calderón initiated the drug war offensive, from 2,793 applications in 2006 to 3,459 in 2008, according to the Executive Office for Immigration Review under the U.S. Department of Justice. But the number of petitions dropped to 2,816 in 2009.

Hard to keep count

Nonetheless, tracking the number of people coming into the Valley, Texas or the United States from Mexico out of fear is difficult, experts said. No agency seems to be keeping count.

Part of the reason is because the way Mexican families are moving into the country runs the gamut. Some Mexican nationals have double citizenship, others apply for investor visas or asylum, and some come in illegally.

To judge the economic impact, thus, is much tougher. But Howard Campbell, professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso points to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, as an example.

Between 30,000 to 500,000 people have fled from Juarez to the United States, according to estimates based on the number of abandoned homes and the assumed number of people per household, he said. The number may be exaggerated, and it is uncertain how many of these people reside in the bordering city of El Paso, “but the impact is tangible. You can see it,” Campbell said.

“It is very sad and tragic but the suffering in Juarez is contributing to the economic stimulus of El Paso,” he said. “There is also a cultural side. There is a sort of rejuvenation and reincarnation of Mexican culture in the United States.”

Many of the people fleeing Juarez are some of the wealthiest in the city and have injected a lot of money into El Paso’s economy, the professor added.

Business boom

Real estate agents in the Valley said Mexican nationals moving in are helping keep the housing market afloat. Richards, for instance, estimated Mexican nationals to make up between 40 to 50 percent of Trendsetters’ clientele in Hidalgo county.

Many families also are “realizing it is a great time to make investments in the United States,” said Norma Rasco, a real estate agent with Rancho Viejo Realty.

“Mexican nationals are cash buyers, and in this economy, cash is king,” she said.

The stimulus is true of business in the Valley as well, financial leaders said. Larry Jokl, a commercial real estate agent with Brownsville Real Estate Management Company, said he helped six Mexican clients move their businesses to the Valley last year.

“In the first three months of this year, I have had a dozen clientele from Mexico who have looked to locate their businesses here, two of whom already have,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Brownsville Economic Development Council has hosted about half a dozen prospects, or companies serious to relocate in Brownsville, from Mexico since January. On any given year, that number would have been about two, said Gilbert Salinas, spokesman for the city’s development council.

“A recurring theme has been that due to security issues in their country, they are now putting their plans on a fast track to break into the U.S. markets,” he said. “Business men and women always have that — breaking into the U.S. market — in the back of their mind. Now they are making it a priority.”

As published April 3, 2010