WASHINGTON - The government has issued all 10,000 visas available this year for immigrant crime victims who help authorities investigate and prosecute perpetrators.
The last of this fiscal year's supply of the visas, known as U visas, was approved Thursday morning, marking the first time the government has hit the statutory U visa limit since the program became active two years ago.
The visas were created as part of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000. They are given to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking and other crimes in exchange for cooperation with law enforcement.
In 2007, attorneys for immigrants who had been victims of crime sued the government for failing to issue any visas. Only 52 were issued in 2008. About 6,000 applications were approved last fiscal year.
Alejandro Mayorkas, director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, said an increased focus on U visa processing, as well as increased outreach and resources to crime victims groups and law enforcement, contributed to increased applications. Forty-five staffers are now working on U visas, compared with four in 2008, spokesman Bill Wright said.
"We will not turn our attention away from victims of crime," Mayorkas said.
Another 10,000 visas will be available in October, when the 2011 fiscal year begins. Until then, the government can grant interim legal status to non-citizens whose applications for the visas are approved so they can work.
Most visas are given to people not allowed to be in the country, but some are given to people with some sort of permission to be in the U.S.
Crystal Williams, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said she is pleased the government "has turned its own situation on U visas around so thoroughly."
"I hope this shows that the years of benign neglect of this visa are behind us," she said.
The milestone highlights challenges law enforcement officers face in investigating and prosecuting crimes involving mostly illegal immigrants. Many are too afraid of deportation to report crimes. Critics of a new Arizona immigration law fear the law may affect immigrants' willingness to assist law enforcement.
Wright said most visas go to victims of domestic violence, followed by sexual assault and related crimes. Visas for people needed to help in murder investigations or victims of other violent crimes rank third.
The use of all 10,000 visas indicates the visa's efficacy to law enforcement, said Gail Pendleton, co-director for ASISTA, a group that advises the Justice Department's Office of Violence Against Women.
The next step is for Congress to eliminate the 10,000 limit, which Williams called a self-defeating quota.
"Putting a numeric limit on something like U visa is absurd in the first place," she said.
"I hope this shows that the years of benign neglect of this visa are behind us."
president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association