Veronica Lopez called her grown children in Los Angeles in early February to say goodbye. She had spent nine months in immigration detention and was scheduled for deportation to Guatemala.
Lopez felt scared. Her abusive ex-husband had already been deported and she was worried he would track her down. She had applied for a special visa for undocumented crime victims who cooperate with police, but a decision hadn’t been made. Despite the pending application, immigration officials were moving forward based on an outstanding deportation order.
On Feb. 12 -- just one day before her scheduled flight -- she got word that her so-called U-visa was approved and she could stay in the country. She was released from a detention center in Arizona a few days later.
“It was a miracle,” Lopez said recently from her Los Angeles apartment. “I cried, I was so happy.”
Roughly 50 applicants for U-visas are being held in immigration detention centers around the country, racing the clock to get their visas granted before they are deported. Hundreds more who are not in detention are involved in removal proceedings in Immigration Courts. Immigration attorneys said detention and the threat of deportation undermine the law that Congress passed in 2000 creating the U-visas, which are designed to bolster law enforcement’s ability to investigate and prosecute certain crimes while offering protection to undocumented victims and their families.
Victims “are not going to want to cooperate if they fear they are going to get deported,” said Andrew Taylor, a San Francisco immigration attorney.
Government officials said they know of only one person with a pending U-visa who was deported before his case could be decided; they paroled him back into the country from Mexico days later and he was granted a U-visa last month. Attorneys contacted by The Times cited other such crime victims with pending applications who were deported, including a Virginia woman sent back to Uruguay and a Denver man removed to Mexico.
U-visas are available to undocumented crime victims who are helpful in investigations or prosecutions and have suffered substantial physical or mental abuse as a result of crime. After three years, visa holders can apply to become legal permanent residents. Certain family members, including spouses and children, are also eligible for the visas.
Even though the law was passed nine years ago, it was only in 2007 that the government established regulations and started issuing U-visas. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 16,400 people have applied for the visas and 2,115 applicants and 1,583 family members have received them as of late June.
Until it began issuing the visas, the agency gave interim benefits -- work permits and temporary protection from deportation -- to qualified candidates.
In 2007, however, the agency stopped giving the benefits and told applicants they had to wait until their cases were decided.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement has the authority to grant temporary stays in these cases but does so inconsistently, immigration attorneys said.
“Having a pending U-visa request doesn’t stop the immigration removal process,” said ICE spokeswoman Kelly Nantel. “That’s where coordination and the speed of these reviews is important.”
Natalie Nanasi, who represents the woman sent back to Uruguay, said she has since lost touch with her client, who was deported in April 2008.
“It’s very sad that somebody who spoke out against abuse, who helped law enforcement apprehend somebody who was violent . . . ended up not being able to receive the immigration relief she was entitled to,” said Nanasi, a staff attorney at Tahirih Justice Center in Virginia, which offers legal services to immigrant women.
Nanasi said it’s frustrating to see how two branches of the Department of Homeland Security that deal with immigration cases do not coordinate cases as well as they should.
Until last month there was a lack of communication between those agencies. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which oversees detention and deportation, said that it did not have a computerized way of knowing which detainees had applied for U-visas from its partner agency, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“Not being able to link that information, that is a critical gap,” Nantel said.
The two agencies started sharing data in early June, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is trying to quickly decide on the detainees’ cases. Also last month, the agency decided to do a preliminary review of the detainees’ cases; those who appear to be eligible will be given temporary reprieves from deportation while their cases are decided, spokesman Chris Bentley said.
Meanwhile, Immigration and Customs Enforcement is reviewing each applicant’s case, as well as his or her immigration and criminal history, and considering whether to release people from detention. The agency is also creating guidelines for officers on how to deal with cases of detainees with pending U-visas.
But even if a case cannot be decided quickly, Bentley said, an applicant can await a decision abroad and be allowed to reenter if a U-visa is granted.
Marina Hernandez, who lives in the Bay Area and had to report to immigration authorities three times a week, was very close to having to wait out her case from Mexico. Immigration and Customs Enforcement granted her a stay of deportation in October, but that expired in April and agents ordered her to show up with a plane ticket.
She received her U-visa in May, the day before she was supposed to appear at the immigration office. Hernandez, who had an outstanding deportation order from years earlier, qualified for the visa after helping prosecutors convict her ex-husband of domestic violence, said her lawyer Susan Bowyer, managing attorney at the International Institute of the Bay Area.
In other cases, time ran out.
A man whose wife was a victim of an armed bank robbery in Santa Monica was deported to Slovakia in September 2008, despite the pending U-visa application for him and his wife, said his Los Angeles attorney, Julie Sparks. His wife, who wore an electronic monitor for six months, is still living in Los Angeles and regularly reporting to immigration enforcement authorities while she waits for a decision on her case and a reunification with her husband.
Sparks said immigration officials should have allowed the man to remain in the country while the case was being decided.
“They are not following the spirit of the law,” she said.