Nearly a decade ago, when Juana Martinez learned her then-8-year-old daughter had been sexually assaulted by a family acquaintance, she did not immediately go to the police.
Martinez said shock was what kept her back, but she also feared she could be deported. Martinez illegally moved to the U.S. from Mexico 22 years ago, she said, and lives in west suburban Aurora with her family. She said she and her husband overcame their concerns about going to the police when her son angrily confronted them.
“It was really important for us,” Martinez said through tears. “It was also important for our daughter. She needed to see that we weren’t just sitting around with our arms crossed doing nothing, that this guy was going to have to pay for what he had done.”
The federal government provides a special kind of visa for undocumented immigrants like Martinez, who spoke to WBEZ under the condition we do not use her real name. They are called U-visas and can be given to people who help law enforcement officials solve certain violent crimes.
But obtaining a U-visa can be difficult. Local law enforcement agencies play a huge role in determining who is eligible for a U-visa, and they do not all adhere to the same standards. There are such huge disparities between agencies in Illinois that some state lawmakers are proposing new rules in hopes of establishing some consistency.
U-visas allow undocumented immigrants to live in the U.S. for up to four years. The program was created by Congress in 2001 under the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act, and it was partly billed as a tool for law enforcement officials to gain cooperation from witnesses and victims who live in the country illegally.
Martinez’s first attempt at trying to get a U-visa was not successful. The federal government requires immigrants to submit a certification form with their U-visa applications. The certification form must be filled out by a law enforcement official who affirms the immigrant helped bring a criminal to justice.
Martinez asked the DuPage County State’s Attorney’s office to fill out her certification form, but it denied her request.
“I was really surprised that they didn’t sign [the certification form], keeping in mind that we had fully cooperated,” Martinez said. “We reported [the crime], we talked to the detectives, with the county. We were constantly in touch with them by telephone and via letter.”
DuPage County State’s Attorney Robert Berlin declined to discuss any specific U-visa requests with WBEZ, including Martinez’s. He said his office follows federal guidelines.
“We exercise our discretion on a case-by-case basis,” Berlin said. “We’ve granted a number of these applications. We’ve denied some. But I think we’re very fair and open-minded when we review these.”
Many immigration attorneys and domestic violence counselors said the DuPage County State’s Attorney’s office is one of the most difficult agencies to obtain certification from in Illinois. It is hard to say how many U-visa requests it receives and grants because Berlin said his office does not keep those records.
But other agencies track how they handle U-visas. Records collected by WBEZ from six counties show wide disparities throughout the Chicago area. In 2015, the Cook County State’s Attorney office received 422 requests for U-visa certification. Records show the office approved 322. That means Cook County approved 76 percent of the requests it received.
In Kane County, the state’s attorney’s office approved 81 percent of certification requests in 2015. The office received 70 requests and approved 57.
But similar offices for other counties approved requests at a much lower rate. In 2015, McHenry County received 13 requests and certified 7, a rate at less than 54 percent. In Lake County, 43 requests were received in 2015 and only 26 were approved, a rate of about 60 percent.
Those numbers bother Andy Kang, who is the legal director of the advocacy group Asian Americans Advancing Justice Chicago.
“That can be quite challenging and, we think, wrong — that depending on where you’re a victim of crime would determine how eligible you would be for this process,” he said.
Asian Americans Advancing Justice Chicago is one of several community organizations pushing for a legislative fix in Illinois.
Some state lawmakers said a measure they’re proposing will address these huge disparities. The Illinois Trust Act (SB31) would require local law enforcement agencies to designate an officer specifically to respond to all U-visa certification requests within 90 days of receipt. The proposal would also force agencies, like the DuPage County State’s Attorney’s office, to keep records of how many requests they grant.
Ultimately, Martinez was able to receive U-visa certification from the Aurora Police Department. Because the federal government caps the number of U-visas at 10,000 annually, her application is sitting in a stack that could take years to work through. In the end, she still may be denied the visa.
But Martinez said she has no regrets over working with the DuPage County State’s Attorney’s office. Prosecutors from that office obtained a conviction against the man who assaulted her daughter.
“My message to the community would be to report the crime,” Martinez said. “And not to report the crime because of the opportunity of a U-visa but to report the crime to ensure that justice is done.”
Odette Yousef is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @oyousef.