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Bill would speed up process for getting U-visa protections

They say the wheels of justice turn slowly, and that is certainly the case in matters of federal immigration law, a House panel heard Tuesday.

The House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Committee approved HF321, which would speed up the application process for foreign nationals who are victims of serious crimes to receive federal protection in the form of a U-visa, which allows them to remain in the United States.

An 11-6 party-line vote sent the bill to the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee. There is no Senate companion.

A U-visa is intended to protect crime victims and ensure foreign national crime victims are available to remain in the country and assist in the prosecution of those accused of the crimes, said Rep. Sandra Feist (DFL-New Brighton), the bill sponsor.

“A significant percentage of U-visas go to victims of domestic violence,” Feist said, which is important because the perpetrators of that violence often try to silence their victims with threats of deportation.

The backlog on U-visa applications received by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is so large, it takes “many, many years” for applicants to get a decision, said Feist.

This legislation can’t speed up the federal U-visa approval process, Feist said, but it would speed up the time it takes for foreign nationals who are victims of serious crimes to get the state documents needed to apply for this protection.

The bill would require law enforcement agencies in the state to provide, within 90 days, foreign nationals with a certificate identifying them as crime victims. That time frame would be reduced to 14 days if the victim is currently in removal proceedings.

Feist said nothing in current law guides law enforcement agencies on how to fill out the certificate and how long they have to complete it.

Rep. Patricia Mueller (R-Austin) is concerned the bill would not require an active investigation, filing of charges, or conviction in order for the victim of criminal activity to request and obtain a certificate from a law enforcement agency.

Mueller said that without those requirements, the bill could open the door for people to falsely claim they were victims of crimes in order to fraudulently get the protections of a U-visa.

“How can we hold people accountable … so that people who are applying for this visa really are the true victims that desperately need to have the protections they deserve?” she asked.

Feist replied there are several safeguards in place to prevent that kind of abuse, including the extensive documentation of the alleged crime the victim must submit with the U-visa application.

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