If you were a victim of a violent crime, would you think twice before calling 911?
Many people here in Hennepin County and all across the country are too afraid to call law enforcement for help.
The underlying reasons for this fear vary: Some people are afraid that a violent person will become even more violent when the police arrive, or if they learn a police report has been filed. Some are afraid that loved ones will be prosecuted and punished by being sent to prison — or deported. Often underlying this fear is concern over financial support in cases where the aggressor also provides the primary source of income for victims and their families.
In immigrant communities, fear is worsened by the fact that deportation may mean that your family would be separated forever, or that you and your family may be deported along with the violent offender.
But we also have a tool that helps many overcome that fear, report crime and help ensure that justice is served.
Law enforcement has come to rely on the federal U visa program for assisting undocumented victims and witnesses. The program provides legal protection for people who aid law enforcement in investigating — or assist in the prosecution of — violent crime such as rape, murder, torture, incest, prostitution, domestic violence, kidnapping and obstruction of justice.
We need the cooperation of victims and witnesses in identifying and arresting people committing violent crimes — those engaging in the kind of criminal activity that creates an atmosphere and culture of violence and fear, and threatening the safety of our kids and families in our neighborhoods, schools, businesses and places of worship. We serve the entire community when we work together to identify, arrest and prosecute these violent criminals.
U visas grant qualified applicants eligibility to remain and work in the United States for four years, which may be extended. In 2000, Congress initially authorized 10,000 U visas per year, but for six straight years, our U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has met the 10,000 limit with qualified applicants long before the end of the year.
Currently, USCIS has a backlog of 45,000 qualified applicants. In the name of public safety, I urge Congress to analyze the benefits of this program and consider raising the limit.
We see it all the time as law enforcement officers: witnesses to murder or gang violence who refuse to come forward with information because they fear more violence; underage victims of sex trafficking who tragically depend upon their trafficker (for food, drugs or shelter — or a gruesome emotional dependence) but refuse to provide information about their trafficker; victims of domestic abuse, including children, who need protection but stay silent because they believe they have no independent means for supporting themselves, and undocumented residents who don’t call 911 for fear of being deported if they call for help.
In law enforcement, we are always working on strategies to build trusting relationships with the community we serve and to foster cooperation — especially in fighting violent crime. Witness protection programs, prosecutorial immunity and discretion, and victim advocacy programs are ways we can help victims counter their fear. The U visa program helps, too.
We should never turn a blind eye to violent crime in our community or take a pass when it comes to thoughtfully understanding and finding solutions to meet the real needs of victims and witnesses. We want all victims and witnesses to call 911 so we can work diligently to ensure justice for violent criminals.
U visas are part of this very important strategy for fighting violent crime and helping victims become survivors.
Rich Stanek is sheriff of Hennepin County.