HARRIS COUNTY– (October 13, 2021) –The Harris County Commissioners Court unanimously adopted an advisory model U visa policy for others to follow. This marks an important day for immigrant survivors of crime and those who assist them in navigating the complex and often difficult U visa application process.
“It should come as a surprise to no one that many undocumented residents who live in Harris County live in the shadows, and that makes them unlikely to report incidents of crime,” said Judge Lina Hidalgo. “The U.S. is in desperate need of comprehensive immigration reform that is fair and smart, but in the meantime, we must do what we can to help ensure no victim of crime in our community is afraid to speak up and seek redress, irrespective of immigration status.”
The U visa program, created in 2000, was intended to encourage immigrant victims of domestic violence, trafficking, sexual assault, and other crimes where they suffered substantial mental or physical harm, to report this victimization to authorities. Congress created the U visa with the dual purpose of encouraging crime victims to cooperate and aid law enforcement without fear of deportation and to provide humanitarian relief for survivors of violent crime.
“Since day one, I have been committed to looking for ways to help survivors of crime and bringing their assailants to justice. That’s why I asked the Justice Administration Department to develop a model policy that law enforcement agencies could utilize. If adopted, this model policy will help both law enforcement and survivors navigate the process. Survivors of the most serious types of crime deserve a shot to remain in the country if they agree to help law enforcement without fear of deportation, which is the intended purpose of the federal legislation that governs the U visa. This policy is a great first step at helping survivors bring drug and human traffickers who have caused them great harm to justice.” said Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia.
There is currently no across departmental unified Harris County certification policy process for U visa Certifiers. As a result, the Harris County District Attorney (HCDAO), the Harris County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO), and the eight Constables Precincts have different U visa Certification practices. The recommendations from JAD, in collaboration with victim service providers for the Harris County advisory U visa Model Policy, incorporates best practices currently being used by various departments in the County. Departments do retain the autonomy to either adopt or not adopt the Harris County Model Policy. The adoption of the Model Policy, will help make the certification process more consistent for survivors, easier to navigate, and would help set a standard for other jurisdictions to follow.
“In order to cohesively move forward and help survivors of crime, Harris County needs a uniformed procedure standard for U Visa processing across all law enforcement and justice-related departments,” stated Constable Jerry Garcia, Precinct 2. “JAD’s recommended procedure of assigning a U Visa Certifier in each department and providing contact information for that person on departmental websites and Victim Services information will help build trust and smooth process between survivors of crimes and law enforcement.”
The certification does not guarantee a successful application for the U visa. It does not grant or convey any immigration status. However, it will allow the survivor to apply for a U visa so that the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) can approve or deny an individual's U visa application.
“HILSC applauds the County on creating this policy to establish a norm on how to support survivors of crime. For immigrant victims of crime, they need law enforcement to provide a certificate so that they can apply for immigration protection under the U visa program,” said Zenobia Lai, Executive Director, Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative (HILSC). “One important aspect of the policy is that it eliminates the time limit within which a victim must seek this certification. Removing arbitrary time restriction allows victims to focus on recovery and other immediate needs before focusing on their immigration legal case.”
JAD’s recommendations include actions at the Federal, State, and Local levels to offer a top-down and bottom-up approach to addressing the needs of immigrant survivors of crime and their dependents.
- Federal-Level Solutions include removing the cap on the issuance of U visas per year and increasing USCIS’s guidance to certifying agencies, including Law Enforcement, District Attorneys, and Judges.
- State-Level Solutions ask Law Enforcement Agencies, District Attorneys, and Judges to receive training on the U visa certification, assign a dedicated employee to handle U visa Certifications, and include U visas in Victim Services documentation.
- Local-Level Solutions adopt the Model U visa Policy for Harris County, assign a U visa Certifier (when applicable) in each department, and providing contact information for that person on departmental websites and Victim Services information. Make the information accessible to non-English-proficient individuals and/or those with disabilities. As well as collect data on U visa requests and approvals to understand better how many U visa requests occur within Harris County.
JAD plans to promote the advisory model U visa policy and work with law enforcement agencies and others who choose to adopt to the model policy. And will continue to partner with victim service providers to conduct education about the importance of U visa and certification policies.
For more information click on the links below. Reports can also be found on the JAD website.