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New law would ensure protection for undocumented victims of crime if passed

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On Wednesday at 10 a.m., the Washington state Senate Law & Justice Committee will either pass or reject a bill that would standardize law agency procedures as well as ensure that qualified undocumented victims of crime can receive lawful protections without the fear of deportation.

Substitute House Bill 1022 (SHB 1022) is an act relating to immigrant victims of certain qualifying criminal activity that includes blackmail, domestic violence, trafficking, rape, and other similar activities where the elements of the crime are similar to the federal crime. It would require law enforcement agencies to complete victim certifications for U and T nonimmigrant visa applications in a timely manner of 90 days of receipt, or within 14 days if the victim is subject to removal proceedings.

The U nonimmigrant status visa (U visa) is a status for victims of certain crimes who are helpful to law enforcement in the investigation or prosecution of criminal activity. One of the requirements of the U visa is to have the “Certification of Victim Helpfulness” signed by law enforcement, a judge, or any qualifying agency.

The T nonimmigrant status visa (T visa) has the same conditions as the U visa but applies to those who are or have been victims of human trafficking.

The U and T visas are forms of federal immigration relief that have been effective since October 2000, enacted by Congress in recognition that many immigrant victims of crime may be reluctant to seek help from law enforcement because of the fear of deportation and other consequences related to their immigration status. These visas offer temporary legal status in the United States and may be extended to permanent residency after a few years.

The prime sponsor of the bill is Rep. Drew MacEwen (R-Union), who discussed the bill in a public hearing in the House Public Safety Committee.

“We’re not here to change immigration law; that’s a federal issue,” MacEwan said. “We’re not dealing with that. This actually codifies us with existing federal law and what most states already have on the books. Shockingly, we’re one of the states that do not have this.”

Other sponsors include Rep. Eric Pettigrew (D-Seattle) and Rep. Larry Haler (R-Richland), and advocates include the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WSCADV), the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP), the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC), and the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys (WAPA).

According to Georgina Olazcon Mozo, an immigration attorney for NWIRP, a nonprofit that serves low-income immigrants in Washington state, law enforcement agencies have inconsistent practices in regard to requests for certification, as some refuse or ignore to complete the form even when the victim is eligible.

“Unfortunately, we have encountered resistance, willful ignorance,” Olazcon Mozo said. “And a strong anti-immigrant sentiment when requesting certification.”

The bill would eliminate inconsistent procedures and promote predictability with the certification, as law enforcement agencies would be obligated to follow a specified and uniform procedure with specific timelines for the forms. Currently, the response that the victim receives and when they receive it varies by county in our state.

WSCADV Public Policy Coordinator Tamaso Johnson expressed that some law enforcement agencies are reluctant to comply with the certification because of general lack of understanding about the purpose and nature of the form.

“The certification form simply asks the agency to verify that they believe the victim is indeed a victim of one of the qualifying crimes, has information about the crime, and the agency believes that the victim is being helpful, or is likely to be in the future,” Johnson said. “The agency signing the form is not being asked to make any kind of determination or decision about whether this victim should get immigration status or not.”

While the bill does not obligate law enforcement agencies to sign the certification, only to follow standard procedures, having the paperwork completed is the first step of the victim’s recovery from trauma.

UW law professor Mary Fan, who specializes in immigration law, oversees UW law students involved in the NWIRP and UW Law School cooperative titled the Immigrant Families Advocacy Project. It primarily assists immigrant victims of domestic violence who are eligible to self-petition for a U visa.

“These families have come through great adversity and epitomize the American dream’s power,” Fan said. “Obtaining the law enforcement certification is one of the crucial parts of the process, in addition to telling the violence survivor’s story in the petition.”

Washington state is among the few states in our nation that experiences a growth in its undocumented population, which means an increasingly larger portion of Washington residents could benefit from this bill.

The bill has passed the House with a 95-1 vote and is scheduled for public hearing in the Senate Law & Justice Committee tomorrow at 10 a.m., which will be live streamed.

Those who wish to support the bill may access the committee’s contact information here to call them before they cast their votes.


Reach reporter Yemas Ly at Twitter: @Yemas_Ly   

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