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Immigrants seek expanded visa program for crime victims. Police chief agrees with them.

Individuals who say they have been victims of crime gathered at City Hall before the City Council meeting asking officials to expand the people who qualify for a U-visa, which allows victims of crime to stay and work in the U.S. for up to four years.
Individuals who say they have been victims of crime gathered at City Hall before the City Council meeting asking officials to expand the people who qualify for a U-visa, which allows victims of crime to stay and work in the U.S. for up to four years. vbridges@heraldsun.com

Margarita Ocampo was breastfeeding her newborn daughter early one morning when two men entered her apartment and put a gun to her forehead, she said.

They hit her 16-year-old brother on the head, took their phones and searched her home, looking under the mattress where her other two children, ages 7 and 8, slept.

“I was afraid they would start crying. I didn’t know what to do,” said Ocampo, 33. “I was afraid they would shoot us.”

The men finally left around 6 a.m. after holding the family hostage for more than two hours, she said.

The incident occurred about nine years ago, Ocampo said Monday night, as she and others asked the Durham City Council to expand a policy that lets people who are in the country illegally and who are victims of crimes obtain temporary legal status.

About 10 people in matching purple T-shirts attended the meeting to support U visas. Congress created the program in 2000 to help fight domestic violence, sexual assault, trafficking and other crimes, while protecting those willing to come forward.

Only 10,000 U-visas are can be granted in the U.S. annually. Applications certified by local agencies go to federal officials, who make the final decision.

Policy expanded once

The Durham Police Department’s policy currently covers those who are involved in crimes that occurred up to four years ago and may no longer have working leads.

Police Chief C.J. Davis already expanded the program in Durham in January, before which crimes had to have been committed within the past year and still have active leads. She said she expects to expand it again “in the very near future.”

“It’s not that we don’t want to,” Davis said in an interview. “We have to be reasonable about our resources.”

In addition, the department will certify cases over four years old if they are “active or pending prosecution,” police spokesman Wil Glenn wrote in an email.

Before the January change, most cases were denied due to a lack of working leads, Davis told the City Council.

Police are taking a more proactive role by using Spanish language radio interviews and social media platforms to communicate the policy changes, Davis said.

In the first nine months of 2018, U visa requests in Durham rose nearly 50 percent.

During that time, there were 175 requests, of which 115 requests (66 percent) were approved.

In contrast, in all of 2017 there were 119 applications of which 26 (22 percent) were approved.

Of the 60 cases denied this year, 18 were more than four years old and lacked pending prosecution. The alleged crimes included rape, kidnapping, domestic violence and felonious assault.

‘A dignified life’

The four-year limit is unfair, Ocampo and others said Monday.

Others deserve the opportunity, they said, even if it’s taken them longer to come forward because they were still processing what happened to them or because they doubted police administrators would support them.

“We have the right, like all people, to have a dignified life,” said Monica Rosa, who said she has been the victim of crime three times.

The City Council thanked those who came to share their stories and praised Davis for the changes she has made.

“I think your work on the U-visa has been perhaps one of the greatest steps to align the city’s values with our actions,” said Council Member Mark-Anthony Middleton.

Council members also said they support the continued expansion of the program.

“I hope you will be mindful of the resources that you need to do that and will talk to us about any additional needs that you see in that area,” said Council Member Charlie Reece.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges
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