Juliana Barbassa of the AP reports that the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) is now authorized to certify applications for a U visa specially for immigrants who have been victims of crimes and help authorities prosecute perpetrators, according to DOL Secretary Hilda Solis.
Previously, law enforcement agencies were responsible for signing off on the applications that must receive final approval from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
To qualify for the visas, immigrants have to show they suffered a specific crime such as sexual assault or being forced to work without pay, and show they helped law enforcement in their investigation.
The DOL action is intended to help immigrants who might be afraid to call police or unable to escape their workplace.
"Regardless of immigration status, no one should have to suffer criminal abuse silently," Solis said in a statement Monday. "U visas give some measure of security to immigrant victims who are desperate to escape an abusive situation and are willing to cooperate with law enforcement."
After approval by USCIS, the visas allow immigrants to stay in the country for four years and eventually apply for residency.
The program, first created in 2000, got off to a slow start — only 52 applications were approved in 2008. But 5,825 application were approved in 2009, and 4,930 in fiscal 2010 as of Jan. 10.
Police departments have certified applications for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, rape and other specified crimes.
But individual police departments can differ in their interpretation of what it means for an immigrant to collaborate with an investigation.
While some law enforcement agencies routinely certify U visa applications, some won't, said Susan Bowyer, whose organization, the International Institute of the Bay Area, has filed hundreds of the visa applications.
Since the DOL is responsible for enforcing laws involving the employment of migrant workers, its personnel routinely come into contact with immigrants.
"This recognizes that not everyone might feel they can pick up the phone and call the police," Bowyer said.
Since the DOL is a federal agency, it can apply a uniform standard, she said.