Immigrant visa program boosts public safety

The undocumented immigrant population -- averse to reporting crime and exposing their illegal status -- are easy targets for all manner of crime by predators confident their victims will not cooperate with law enforcement. Fears of deportation and incarceration are too great.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services program that provides visas for immigrant victims of certain crimes who cooperate with authorities attempts to solve that problem. While anti-immigrant sentiments remain strong among a sizeable portion of the citizenry, public safety should be the pre-eminent concern of government.

The visa program serves everyone's vital interests -- by removing the worst of the worst criminals from our streets and reducing the threat that these felons pose to citizens.

These special "U nonimmigrant" visas are only available for victims of such crimes as kidnapping, rape and domestic violence. Human trafficking, false imprisonment and extortion are some other qualifying crimes.

Victims also "must have suffered substantial physical or mental abuse," according to agency.

This is just the fourth year for the program and only 10,000 visas have been approved for distribution to qualifying undocumented individuals who assist law enforcement and prosecutors. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced the reauthorization of the program for the coming fiscal year in late August.

Manatee County's major law enforcement agencies -- the sheriff's office and both the Bradenton and Palmetto police departments -- encourage cooperation from undocumented victims and witnesses.

"We hold no prejudice to the immigration status," Bradenton Capt. Warren Merriman told Herald reporter Miriam Valverde. "If there's a crime, we investigate it."

Sarasota-based UnidosNow helps the Hispanic communities in both Manatee and Sarasota counties, and the nonprofit organization strives to get people to overcome their fear of cooperating with authorities and reporting crime.

UnidosNow will assist crime victims and contact law enforcement.

The visa program allows crime victims to remain in this country for four years with a work permit and a pathway for permanent residency.

In addition, family members are eligible for green cards under certain conditions.

This very successful program already reached its 10,000-visa limit this year, but is still accepting petitions for review when the new fiscal year begins in October and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services can then grant visas.

The program grew out of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, which includes the Battered Immigrant Women's Protection Act.

The legislation gives law enforcement agencies powerful tools to solve violent crimes and better serve victims.

The benefit to the community at large -- with the successful prosecution and incarceration of violent offenders -- is just as important.