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U-Visa: Illegal Immigrants Become Legal Residents Via Crime Victimization 

Wednesday, Mar 16 2011
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The pizza delivery guy glanced at the order for his late-night run. Trouble. In 1995, supreme pizzas were the priciest pies on the menu at Geneva Pizza, a mom-and-pop shop in the Excelsior, and this customer wanted two. Plus, the delivery was for an address near the projects in Visitacion Valley, where $30.05 wasn't pocket change.

Mardoqueu Silva was 21 then, a Brazilian student both model-handsome and choirboy-polite. Illegally overstaying his tourist visa for four years and counting, he took the jobs he could get without papers. So he headed out for the delivery that would change his life.

Silva followed his boss' instructions. Parking in the street and calling to say he'd arrived, he rolled the window down a few inches and told the twentysomething black man who approached in a 49ers jacket and white pants to pay him up front. The man stuffed bills into his hand, and Silva turned to grab the pizzas in the passenger seat.

A .45 handgun was pressed into Silva's temple. His hair stood on end.

"Give me all the motherfucking money and your wallet and get the hell out of the car."

Silva got out, his hands behind his head. He told his assailant that his wallet was in the car, and to take anything you want, just don't shoot. More thugs rushed up and searched his car, snatching his cellphone, and yes, the two pizzas. In less than a minute, it was over.

Silva sped back to the pizzeria and quit on the spot. His boss called the cops. Police officers drove him back to the block of the delivery, where they had several men lying handcuffed on the sidewalk. The police shone a light on them; Silva identified the man in the 49ers jersey, but didn't recognize the rest.

The hold-up haunted him. Silva hates to admit it, but his heart would race when a black man — any black man — sat near him on BART for years afterward. Yet life as an illegal immigrant continued. He married another undocumented Brazilian. He moved out to Tracy. He became a hairdresser, mumbling "Mmhmm" as the clients in his chair complained about illegals this, illegals that.

One day in 2009, Silva was reading the Bible when Romans 13:1 struck him like a lightning bolt: "Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities." He strode into the Oakland office of immigration attorney Robert Lewis and declared he wanted to do something most immigrants would call utterly are-you-kidding-me crazy: He wanted to turn in himself — and his wife — to immigration authorities.

Lewis was taken aback. "I've never heard that in my entire life," Silva recalls him saying. "I said, 'Let's leave it in God's hands. We'll say we are here illegally and we'll let the court decide.'"

Lewis suggested they explore their options first. He lobbed a long line of questions at Silva, including this one: Had he ever been a crime victim?

"Actually," Silva answered,"I have."

The attorney said he would see whether Silva was eligible for a U-1 visa, designed for victims of crime who'd cooperated with law enforcement. In 2009, this was a new program, and Lewis didn't know if it would work. But Silva was willing to try.

The U.S. immigration system has long offered asylum to those who face persecution abroad. But in reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act of 2000, Congress created a new visa that responded to the violence immigrants face. Domestic violence or sexual assault? Apply here. Robbery or attempted murder? Step right up.

"We have a sick sense of humor here in our office," says Fernanda Bustamante, an attorney on Lewis' team who handled Silva's case. "Like, maybe we should just go tell them to get a job as a pizza deliveryman or walk around Fruitvale with a bunch of money in their hand — of course, that's just totally kidding."

The U visa was intended to improve immigrants' unwillingness to call law enforcement. San Francisco police officers don't inquire about the immigration status of people who report crime, yet the fear persists. Mug a day laborer or beat your wife, the thinking goes —what are the victims going to do? Call 911, so they can be among the more than 300,000 people deported annually? The bad guys go unchecked, police are in the dark about entire swathes of a city, and public safety suffers. Distrust of the authorities only worsened with the recent national rollout of Secure Communities, a federal program that checks the fingerprints of local arrestees against a national database to identify illegal immigrants.

The Department of Homeland Security finally issued regulations to issue U visas in 2007, and started approving them in significant numbers in 2009. In the Bay Area, attorneys, nonprofits, ethnic media, and the applicants themselves are spreading the word that the worst thing that happens to you in the United States may turn out to be the best. To date, 18,654 crime victims, most of whom were in the country illegally, have received the special visas.

Alongside the enthusiasm comes criticism from those who wonder why people who broke the law to be here should be granted legal status for doing what most citizens would do anyway. "How many Americans are victims of violent crime and don't get squat when the trial is over?" says Richard McCain, who was tried and acquitted for domestic violence against his Mexican-born partner. "What does the illegal immigrant get? A chance to live here as an American." Some say it's unfair to those people who wait abroad for years for visas that would allow them to immigrate legally.

Defense attorneys say some applicants are defrauding the system by taking cases to court they otherwise wouldn't in the hope of getting a visa. "Getting status in the United States is such a big deal that it really can create an incentive, sometimes just to exaggerate, and sometimes to flat out fabricate," says Stephanie Wargo, a San Francisco public defender who handled a sexual assault case in which the complaining witness was applying for a U visa. "I don't know the solution, but it is a problem."

About The Author

Lauren Smiley


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