LAS CRUCES — Erendida Nuñez knew her neighbor molested her 5-year-old daughter, who complained of pain in her stomach and vagina.
After a psychologist concluded the girl had been abused, Nuñez and her daughter confronted the neighbors.
“You touched me here!” Nuñez’s little girl said in Spanish.
The neighbor, Andres Ramos, who had lived next door for six years, denied it, Nuñez said. His family defended him and threatened to call Border Patrol.
Nuñez and her husband, Mexican citizens, were living in the United States illegally at the time and debated whether to report the crime. Nuñez had known other crime victims who had fled the area rather than file police reports and face potential deportation.
Her husband was ready to pick up and return to Mexico. But Nuñez was determined to report the crime.
“I knew that whether they sent me to Mexico, I was going to report this man,” she said in Spanish during a recent interview at the Doña Ana County District Attorney’s Office.
It was in that office in 2006 that Nuñez would discover a “big, beautiful surprise” – a visa that grants legal status to immigrants living in the United States without legal status who help authorities prosecute criminals. Legal status can also be granted to family members.
Because Nuñez reported the crime, Ramos was later convicted and sent to prison, while Nuñez and her family received legal status under so-called “U visas.”
Each year, 10,000 U visas are given to such immigrants in the United States, including dozens in Doña Ana County, in exchange for help prosecuting crimes many say would otherwise go unreported.
By removing the threat of deportation, the visas are meant to encourage victims to come forward, Doña Ana County DA Mark D’Antonio said. His counterpart in Clovis, Matt Chandler, agreed, describing U visas as “an insurance policy for law enforcement to make sure that justice is rendered.”
But despite their value to local prosecutors, in each of the last three years there have been too few U visas around the nation to meet demand because of a federally mandated cap of 10,000 per year.
In addition to the backlog, many immigrants don’t know about U visas or know to report crimes that might qualify them for that path to legal status. Because of these two realities, many prosecutors, human rights advocates and New Mexico’s U.S. senators say Washington needs to increase the number of U visas available to help combat crime.
Giving courage or encouraging fraud?
However, some lawmakers in Washington – primarily Republicans – oppose an increase in the number of U visas and have halted two recent efforts to raise the cap to 15,000.
They argue the visas are open to fraud and abuse and disapprove of the path to a green card it offers.
Much of the debate in Washington has centered on whether immigrants without legal status could manipulate the system, exaggerating or fabricating abuse to gain green cards. A bill sponsored last year by Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., even sought to “stop abuse of the U visa program,” according to her website.
The Sun-News found no study or report examining U visa fraud, and calls and emails to Black went unreturned.
The U visa application comes with a “fraud block,” D’Antonio said. The application requires law enforcement certify that a victim aided in the investigation or prosecution of a case.
If victims recant testimony or refuse to cooperate, they face the loss of certification, which means the loss of the visa.
Applicants must also prove they are victims of qualifying criminal activity, they suffered substantial physical or mental abuse as a result of that criminal activity, the crime occurred in the United States or violated U.S. laws, and they have information that aids prosecution.
In addition to federal, state and local law enforcement and judicial agencies, several other agencies can certify applications, including state and federal labor departments and the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission.
Last year, 2,866 applicants were unsuccessful in obtaining visas, according to U.S. Customs and Immigration Services data.
In Doña Ana County, where most victims don’t learn of U visas until they begin the prosecution process, the visas are more of a motivator to continue the process and a reward for victims who had the courage to report crimes, said Lucy Jimenez, a victim’s advocate in the DA’s office.
Over the past seven years, Jimenez has helped more than 100 crime victims apply for U visas. Her job often includes driving victims to and from their appointments with the office. It was Jimenez who arranged the Sun-News’ interview with Nuñez, whom she aided in the U visa and prosecution process.
“A lot of crimes would not be prosecuted without this visa,” she said.
“There are a lot of people that, like me, have been victims and fear reporting for the threat of deportation,” Nuñez said. “…The visa gives someone the courage to say, ‘This isn’t OK.’”
DAs from both parties have supported applications
Congress and the president created U visas in 2000. Since 2006, advocates with the Doña Ana County DA’s office estimate they have helped nearly 300 immigrants obtain U visas in a county with an estimated 15,000 undocumented immigrants — a seven-year period coinciding with the tenures of three district attorneys: Republicans Susana Martinez, now governor, and Amy Orlando, and current DA D’Antonio, a Democrat.
Most nationwide applicants have been victims of domestic violence. Nearly half of Hispanic women who are in the United States illegally or recently obtained legal residency experienced physical abuse by an intimate partner, according to a 2000 study published in the “International Review of Victimology.”
Although domestic violence makes up the majority of crimes U visa applicants are trying to escape, qualifying crimes range from sexual assault to blackmail to torture.
“Victims say, ‘I had no idea this existed. If I had known that the police were there to help me, I would’ve called much earlier, but I was afraid,’” said Alissa Weinberger, a representative of Catholic Charities Legal Services in Las Cruces. Weinberger helps victims fill out the lengthy U visa application for free.
While Republican opposition in Washington has torpedoed efforts to raise the cap, in New Mexico, DAs from both major political parties have supported U visa applications in exchange for victims’ cooperation prosecuting criminals.
“As a prosecutor, Gov. Martinez often requested U visas be issued in cases where witnesses and crime victims were helping prosecute an offender,” the governor’s spokesman, Enrique Knell, wrote in an e-mail. “Individuals, even if they are undocumented, should never fear calling law enforcement when they are victims of a crime or witnesses to a crime.”
Whether to raise the cap, however, “is a much larger question that needs to be examined and discussed,” Knell said.
Repeated attempts to interview the governor on U visas, including raising the cap, were unsuccessful.
Other Republican DAs, including former DA Orlando and current DAs Janetta Hicks in Carlsbad and Diana Martwick in Alamogordo, never replied to repeated requests for comment.
Chandler has used the visas a handful of times in the past decade.
“It’s a necessary partnership that law enforcement must make with these victims to make sure justice is served,” he said.
He also questioned why there is any cap at all.
It is “essentially delaying the justice in the case,” Chandler said. “I think it makes sense to increase it.”
‘Yes, I was very scared’
It was Martinez, when she was a DA, and her staff who helped Nuñez apply for a U visa in 2006.
Once the psychologist confirmed her daughter was molested, Nuñez reported the crime. She wanted to show her daughter that what the neighbor did wasn’t OK and ensure he didn’t harm other children.
That determination outweighed her fear of deportation and her husband’s desire to flee.
“Yes, I was very scared,” she said, recalling thinking: “If I have to go to Mexico, I will go.”
After the police came to the house to file a report, the neighbors became so antagonistic that officers recommended she not answer the door for them, Nuñez said.
The neighbors did call Border Patrol, but the agents didn’t find the Nuñez family when they visited the house.
Nuñez told Jimenez, the victim’s advocate, that she feared deportation, and learned of the U visa.
The family couldn’t believe it existed.
“No one knew this could happen,” Nuñez said. Even after she learned of the visa, “everyone said that it wasn’t true and it wouldn’t happen.”
But it was. And it did. The visa would allow Nuñez, and her daughter and husband, to obtain visas and work permits. (A second daughter was born in the United States and is a citizen.)
On June 25, the family can apply for green cards.
Demand for U visas has skyrocketed in recent years, with applications nationwide quadrupling since fiscal year 2009. Applications rose by 8,000 alone in fiscal year 2012 to 24,768, according to U.S. Customs and Immigration Services data.
Once 10,000 visas are approved each year, applications not yet processed are moved to the front of next year’s line, creating a backlog and increasing the time applicants must wait. Individuals who have applied don’t have to re-apply.
Average processing time is about one year, a U.S. Customs and Immigration services spokesman said.
Locally, Catholic Charities has seen the number of qualifying victims grow exponentially with the office’s move from Anthony to Las Cruces in 2011 and its recent efforts to spread the word about U Visas, Weinberger said.
The office helped with U visa applications aiding nine victims and family members in 2010, 22 in 2011 and 84 in 2012, she said.
Those 84 “aren’t even close to the number that would qualify” for the visas if everyone in the area knew about them, she said.
The DA’s office doesn’t advertise U visas. It’s during the prosecution process the office often discovers victims are in the country illegally and qualify.
Chances of raising the cap remain slim
The congressional debate over whether fraud exists, and to what degree, has so far doomed the raising of the U visa cap.
Extending the cap to 15,000 visas per year was a sticking point in the proposed Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) expansion that never made it out of Congress last year. The Senate voted to renew the bill with the extension, but the House of Representatives, where Republicans have a majority, passed its own version without the increase. The stalemate doomed the bill.
Another VAWA extension was introduced this legislative session and passed into law March 7, but without the U visa cap increase.
The House wouldn’t have approved the VAWA expansion if it raised the U Visa cap, said New Mexico’s two U.S. Senators, Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, who are both Democrats. A spokesman for Rep. Steve Pearce, the Republican who represents southern New Mexico, said the Senate chose what to include in the bill, which Pearce supported.
That spokesman, Eric Layer, dodged questions about the visas. Ultimately, Pearce, through Layer, refused to comment on whether he supports raising the cap.
Proponents of raising the cap say chances of success are slim in the near future. Current congressional talks on immigration reform have included discussion of the U visa cap, Udall said, but an increase was not included in the bipartisan Senate proposal announced April 14 and approved recently by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The immigration reform bill could change the dynamics by granting legal status to some or all of the 11 million immigrants currently living in the United States illegally. In the meantime, D’Antonio said he can’t see another viable option for encouraging crime victims who aren’t in the United States legally to come forward.
“Until someone can bring me a better solution,” he said, “we’ll use these.”
‘It’s not easy to learn to live with this’
Nuñez and her family received their visas in 2009. This summer, they’ll be eligible to apply for green cards and, maybe someday, citizenship, she said with a laugh.
“Con el favor de Dios” — God willing — Nuñez added quickly.
After receiving her U visa, Nuñez enrolled in school and earned her GED. She is self-employed, selling shoes and teaching free zumba classes in Vado for people who are overweight or have hypertension or other problems.
Her husband continues working at a dairy but without fear of deportation. They can travel anywhere without fear now, Flores said.
Her daughter who was molested, now 12, is introverted but a good student and friend, Nuñez said. The daughter shares her story and explains “good touch, bad touch” to other kids during presentations by the DA’s office.
Her daughter has “awesome dreams” now that they have visas, Nuñez said. During the prosecution process, the daughter met Martinez. Today, she wants to be like her.
But scars remain. For years, Nuñez’s daughter didn’t hug men in her family. Even now she rarely hugs her father.
“It’s not easy to learn to live with this,” said Nuñez, reaching for a tissue to wipe her eyes as she explained the lingering effects of her daughter’s abuse.
After two years of legal proceedings, the neighbor, Ramos, pleaded guilty to second-degree criminal sexual contact of a minor. He was sentenced to nine years in prison and is currently at the state penitentiary outside Santa Fe.
He will be deported once he gets out, Jimenez said. He was on a green card.
A prior version of this article misspelled Weinberger’s name.