I-Team: NYPD Reluctant to Sign U-Visa Letters

Critics say officials are ignoring an important crime-fighting tool

The NYPD is reluctant to sign letters that allow illegal immigrants who are victims of crime to apply for temporary visas so that they can assist law enforcement in the investigation and prosecution, the News 4 I-Team has found.

The letters let immigrants who are victims of certain qualifying crimes like armed robbery, rape or felonious assault to apply for what's called a U-visa. The U.S. Department of Justice considers the process a valuable crime-fighting tool, and some victims of violent crime want to know why the NYPD sometimes doesn't sign the certification letters.

“I’m very unhappy. I can’t understand why they won’t sign,” said Xiang Ren, through an interpreter.

Ren has been living and working in the U.S. since 1996, when he left China, claiming it was too oppressive.

In January, Ren was working at a restaurant in Morningside Heights when he noticed a man trying to steal a battery from a friend’s scooter, according to a police report.

“Stop, stop. This is my friend’s bike,” Ren said he told the thief in English.

The suspect hit Ren in the head with the scooter’s battery and tried to escape, the police report said.

Ren told the I-Team he held the man until police arrived and arrested the thief. He then cooperated with police and testified before a grand jury in the case, leading to an indictment against the thief.

"He was a Good Samaritan. He saw someone stealing something and then he tried to stop them," said Ren’s attorney, C.J. Wang. "It's sad to tell a victim of a crime, 'Sorry for what happened to you, thank you for your help, now goodbye.’"

Wang said he has repeatedly tried to get the NYPD to sign a U-visa certification letter for Ren, and was told by a ranking officer that Police Commissioner Ray Kelly is the only person who signs the certifications and that “he won’t do it.”

The I-Team has learned Ren is not alone.

NYPD Inspector Kim Royster said the department has signed 125 U-visa certifications, or 56 percent of applications, in the past three years. By comparison, the Oakland Police Department in California has signed 1,201 applications since 2009, or 95 percent.

"All applications are reviewed on a case-by-case basis by the police commissioner, who is the designated 'certifying officer' for the NYPD," Royster said.

Under the federal law, any ranking officer in a police department can be designated to sign a U-visa certification letter.

U-visas were created by Congress in 2000 as a way to enhance law enforcement’s ability to get violent criminals off the streets and to foster better relationships between police and the immigrant communities they patrol.

The federal government will only approve 10,000 U-visas each fiscal year. In fiscal 2011, it received 16,798 applications, which must include a certification letter.

A certification letter does not guarantee the immigrant will receive a U-visa, but it is the necessary first step in the process. Ultimately the federal government decides whether the immigrant qualifies for the temporary visa, which only lasts up to four years.

Without a U-visa there is chance the immigrant could be deported and not have the opportunity to testify or cooperate with a criminal prosecution and, in a worst-case scenario, the criminal is set free.

“They can attack anybody in the community, so getting that criminal off the street is beneficial to all of us,” said New York City Councilman Daniel Dromm. “This is something that already exists that many people just don’t know about and that the NYPD is not cooperating with.”

Documents published by the U.S. Department of the Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Justice explain the benefits of the U-visa program.

One article in a 2009 FBI bulletin encourages police departments to sign the letters and develop internal systems for processing and handling U-visa certifications.

“The U-Visa can alleviate the concerns of immigrant communities, open lines of communication, and enhance public safety for all. It then helps law enforcement officers fulfill their ultimate goal of ensuring the well-being of those they serve,” the article said.

Dromm, chair of the city's immigration committee, wants the mayor to streamline the process and process the applications immediately.

“He's been a spokesperson on the national level for immigrant rights and if he really means that, then he should be telling the police commissioner that these things are necessary to happen in the police department regarding U-visas," Dromm said.

The Manhattan district attorney is working to prosecute the man who attacked Ren and the DA now has Ren’s request for a U-visa certification.

Royster said Ren’s request is one of 38 forwarded to the DA's office, but Ren’s lawyer says passing the buck is no way to repay a Good Samaritan.

"Crime victims give to the community when they report the crime when they go and assist police and assist in the prosecution of the case," said Wang. "If they can help us and keep criminals away and in jail then they should get something. And if that's status, then give it to them."

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