Police in the Twin Cities are signing off on more applications for special crime victim visas at a faster clip as city leaders and activists have made the visas a banner issue amid stepped-up immigration enforcement.

The city of Minneapolis recently set tight deadlines for law enforcement to certify applications for the visas, called U visas, which open a path to citizenship for crime victims who cooperate with authorities. Now, a similar ordinance is in the works in St. Paul, also requiring fast-track review for immigrants facing imminent deportation.

“It shouldn’t matter if you live in Minneapolis or St. Paul,” said Amy Brendmoen, the St. Paul City Council president. “Your protections should be similar.”

Both urban police departments recently tweaked their handling of the applications, which need the local backing before a federal agency can approve them. Minneapolis, which has long received and approved a high number of requests, assigned a full-time officer to the task for the first time. In St. Paul, the approval rate for such requests jumped sharply.

Even as activists tout U visas as a litmus test for cities aspiring to be immigrant-friendly, supporters of restricting immigration are arguing police should set more stringent standards for signing applications. They say immigrants can abuse the program to dodge deportation, in some cases reporting crimes only after landing in removal proceedings. Immigration authorities have taken a tougher stance, scaling back a practice of giving immigrants with pending U visa petitions a reprieve from deportation.

“Although the U visa program can be an important tool in the investigation and prosecution of crimes, fraud and abuse of the program can lead to unjustified approvals leaving legitimate victims in the shadows,” congressional Republicans wrote in a letter urging tougher federal oversight on the eve of the Trump administration.

Congress created the program in 2000 to encourage immigrants without legal status to report crimes, and some law enforcement officials such as Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek have praised it as a key tool for building trust. More recently, applications have skyrocketed — an increase that, coupled with annual limits on the visas, has led to yearslong waits.

Closing the gap

Federal guidelines give local law enforcement much leeway in deciding which U visa applications to back, and practices vary widely among Minnesota agencies. In the metro, immigrant advocates have zeroed in on St. Paul Police, which in 2013 raised its bar for signing off on requests — a shift officials at the time described as a move to root out fraud, according to several advocates.

Felipe Illescas, who leads outreach and policy campaigns at the Service Employees International Union, said the department’s U visa approval rate in the low teens then undermined its efforts to make inroads with immigrant communities. In 2016, under newly appointed Chief Todd Axtell, the department streamlined its review, to focus on whether the reported crime was on a federal list of qualifying offenses and whether the victim was helpful.

In 2017, the department’s approval rate jumped to 36 percent for about 130 U visa requests it reviewed. It further increased to 90 percent this year, through mid-April.

Commander Kenneth Sass, who sits on a three-member panel that reviews U visa requests, said immigration attorneys are submitting stronger requests, with fewer crimes that do not qualify, such as burglary and car theft. In recent months, the panel also made changes, such as taking a closer look at applications involving robberies — rejected previously as non-qualifying crimes — and approving them if the victim also suffered a serious assault.

Meanwhile, attorneys and activists have held up Minneapolis Police as an agency that approves the bulk of requests it receives, which a Reuters analysis found outpace those in larger cities with higher crime rates. Last year, the department signed off on more than 80 percent of 585 certification requests.

Isabel, who asked that only her first name be used, turned to the agency in 2014 to back her application, with help from the nonprofit Immigrant Law Center’s attorney Lenore Millibergity. A close relative had been the victim of a serious assault, and Isabel, who applied as an indirect victim, got approval within days.

“I was surprised,” said Isabel, a restaurant cook and mother of four from Mexico who recently received her U visa. “I didn’t expect this from the police.”

Minneapolis Police said it does not track data on the types of crimes involved in requests and its turnaround times. But immigration lawyers say they like working with the department because it largely sticks to two basic questions: Were immigrants the victim of a crime in Minneapolis? And, were they helpful?

Last year, attorney Rachel Petersen said, the department readily certified the U visa application of a client facing deportation to Somalia. His more than a dozen felony and misdemeanor convictions require a special waiver from the feds and could yet scuttle his application. But Peterson said he met the department’s requirements to sign off: An acquaintance had run him over with a car after a dispute in 2006, and he gave a police interview about the incident.

In December, Lt. Giovanni Veliz, a 26-year department veteran, was assigned to handle U visa requests full time. During a recent department meeting, Veliz said, he received an e-mail about a U visa request from an immigrant in deportation proceedings. He left the meeting and approved the request in less than two hours.

“You have to see it as a matter of compassion,” he said.

City officials wade in

The Minneapolis City Council unanimously approved an ordinance in December calling on police, the city attorney’s office and the city’s civil rights department to review most U visa requests in 30 days and those from applicants in deportation proceedings within a week.

Former Council Member Elizabeth Glidden, the ordinance’s author, said lawyers and advocates pushed for it “in the context of a lot of dangerous and damaging rhetoric from the White House.” Some had complained about a Minneapolis Police officer who briefly handled requests in late 2017, saying he had denied some because no charges were ever filed or the statute of limitations had expired.

The advocacy group Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee had urged the city to commit to certifying all U visa requests. But member Daniel Romero said advocates were pleased with the ordinance.

“We wanted to hold city officials accountable when it came to the timeline,” he said. “The wheels of the deportation machine spin very quickly.”

Advocates such as Illescas then turned to St. Paul. There, Brendmoen said, the police department and city attorney’s office have been supportive, though officials voiced some concern about setting deadlines like Minneapolis. In 2017, St. Paul Police took 90 days on average to review U visa requests.

Brendmoen hopes to place the U visa ordinance on the council’s agenda in coming weeks, she said: “We’re really anxious to get this done.”