California advances bill to help immigrant crime victims gain visas

Reuters News
Posted: Apr 21, 2015 3:58 PM

By Kristina Cooke and Dan Levine

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Undocumented immigrants in California who are violent crime victims would have the same chance to apply for a special U.S. visa regardless of where in the state the crime occurred, under a bill that passed a state Senate committee on Tuesday.

The federal government grants visas to undocumented immigrants who help law enforcement try to catch criminals. The so-called U-visa allows the recipient to live and work in the United States for four years, but to apply, a victim must first ask local law enforcement to verify their cooperation.

A Reuters investigation last year found vast geographic disparities in law enforcement approaches to this visa, with some agencies readily verifying cooperation and others stonewalling.

The California bill, passed unanimously by the state Senate Public Safety Committee on Tuesday, comes as immigration reform has stalled at the federal level. It is part of a package of bills called "Immigrants Shape California," introduced by Senate and Assembly leadership in the nation's most populous state.

"We wanted to send a very clear message to Washington DC, that legislators around the country have to do their jobs," said Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, a Los Angeles Democrat.

The U-visa bill would require California law enforcement to verify a victim's cooperation within 90 days, unless the agency can demonstrate that the victim was uncooperative. If the victim is in the process of being deported, the timeframe shrinks to 14 days.

If passed, California would be the first state to mandate that law enforcement sign U-visa certifications in a particular timeframe. A representative for Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, declined to comment on the bill.

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The Reuters report made public for the first time federal data on U-visa certifications. It found, for example, that Oakland, California, has less than 5 percent of New York's population, yet law enforcement there verified 2,992 immigrants during the same period - more than twice as many as New York.

Meanwhile Sacramento, California, has a slightly higher population than Oakland, but verified just 300 crime victims.

The bill is expected to be considered by the Senate Appropriations committee in the next few weeks, and then could proceed to a floor vote.

(Reporting by Dan Levine; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)