In early 2019, Vineland, New Jersey’s public safety director, Edwin Alicea, had his house raided by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for certifying a U visa for Carmela Apolonio Hernandez. She is a mother and undocumented immigrant who was at the time seeking asylum in a Philadelphia church. Her U visa request was based on the extortion that she experienced when living in Vineland. Now, like other U visa applicants, her application has been put in jeopardy by the Trump administration’s new policies.
A U visa is class of visas set aside for undocumented people who have been victims of crimes and are actively cooperating with police in an investigation or prosecution of criminal activity. The program protects U visa holders from being deported for assisting in an investigation. Such visas can also be helpful for prosecutors so that they do not waste time and resources on cases in which people who are or will soon be deported are involved. US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) approves 10,000 visas per year for those over the age of 21. For people under the age of 21, there is no set limit on the number of U visas that can be issued. The visas can take up to four years to obtain for most immigrants. Yet the program is facing serious backlogs and, as of March 2019, there were some 239,933 cases awaiting processing.
In Apolonio Hernandez’s case, she was living in Vineland when a man came to her front door demanding to be compensated for returning a check that he claimed to have found. Being undocumented, she was scared to call the police for fear of being deported. The police were called and showed up when the man had already left. He came back to her house one more time after that and the police showed up too late once again.
After this happened, Apolonio Hernandez decided to seek sanctuary in a church in Philadelphia. She received “prima facie determination” from Alicea for a U visa which means that everything needed in a petition for a U visa is present and USCIS does not need any more information make a decision.
Leading up to Alicea’s arrest, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began investigating possible fraudulent U visas as part of a crackdown initiated by Trump appointees. Once he signed off on Apolonio Hernandez’s request for the visa, Alicea became the target of an investigation. Now, not only is her visa in question, but so are all of the other ones that were certified by Alicea. Immigration attorney Kerry Harington calls the investigation of Alicea evidence of an ICE “crackdown on U visas” and a “test case” that will lead to further investigations across the country.
The Trump administration has generally been hostile to the U visa program. It has recently changed one major requirement for the visa: even if you apply for it, you can still be deported while waiting to be certified. This means that by applying, immigrants are essentially reporting themselves to ICE.
Only a few corporate media sources covered stories related to U visas. In early 2019, NBC News covered a story about how rapper 21 Savage overstayed his work visa. His lawyer says that the Department of Homeland Security knew about his history since he had filed for a U visa in 2017, but the Department did not intervene until February 2019. NBC’s reporting mentioned what U visas are and that there are only 10,000 available each year.
Also in May 2019, the New York Times published a fairly comprehensive article about the U visa program, but its focus was on the impact of Trump administration policy changes on police departments, not on undocumented immigrants and their lives. It explained what the program does and how the Trump administration is starting to put limits on it, as well as who gets accepted and who gets denied. The visas can take years to be approved and sometimes immigrants can obtain one after the case they reported has closed. These delays can put them at risk of being deported and can also risk crimes going unpunished because undocumented immigrants are too scared to report something.
Tina Vasquez, “How a Mother in Sanctuary Became the Center of ICE’s ‘Crackdown on U Visas’,” Rewire.News, August 22, 2019, https://rewire.news/article/2019/08/21/how-a-mother-in-sanctuary-became-the-center-of-ices-crackdown-on-u-visas/.
Zack Budryk, “ICE Rule Change on U Visas Sparks Outrage,” The Hill, August 30, 2019, https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/459316-ice-rule-change-on-u-visas-sparks-outrage.
Student Researcher: Brianna Avalos (North Central College)
Faculty Evaluator: Steve Macek (North Central College)