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Reps. Panetta, Jayapal Introduce the Immigrant Witness and Victim Protection Act to Protect Immigrant Survivors of Crime

Bill Would Protect Undocumented Immigrant Victims and Witnesses Working with Law Enforcement to Prosecute Criminals 

Washington, D.C. – Today, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (WA-07) and Congressman Jimmy Panetta (CA-20) introduced the Immigrant Witness and Victim Protection Act, to remove barriers for undocumented immigrant victims and witnesses who may be eligible for protections under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and other federal laws.  This bill will strengthen existing protections and ensure immigrant survivors of crime can work with law enforcement to prosecute criminals.

The bill lifts arbitrary caps on the number of “U” visas available for undocumented immigrant witnesses and victims of violent crimes who cooperate with law enforcement.  The bill also prevents “U” visa applicants and “T” visa human trafficking victim applicants from being detained or deported prior to obtaining immigration protections provided by those types of visas or protections under VAWA.  Finally, the bill allows applicants to be issued work authorization permits within a statutory timeline, making them less vulnerable to re-victimization or exploitation.

“U visa protection is an issue that goes well beyond immigration – it impacts the well-being of communities across the nation.  The Trump administration has done everything in its power to make immigrants and their families feel unwelcome and unsafe in our country, making it more difficult for law enforcement to maintain trust with the communities they have a sworn duty to protect.  This fear of law enforcement that many immigrant communities are faced with hurts everyone in our community, regardless of immigration status. Our Immigrant Witness and Victim Protection Act will ensure all survivors of crime are protected so they can speak out without fear.” said Congresswoman Jayapal.

“As a former prosecutor, I understand how important U Visas, T Visas, and VAWA self-petitions are to strengthen the relationship between local law enforcement and immigrant communities,” said Congressman Panetta.  “Non-citizen victims and witnesses who step out of the shadows and step forward to play a role in our justice system should not be at risk of being detained or deported.  Instead of punishing, we must promote and protect those who participate in our democracy.”

On August 2, the Administration released a directive that allows U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to give permission for people to stay in the country as they await their U visas.  The directive also allows ICE to deport pending U visa applicants at their discretion. Congressman Panetta’s legislation would prevent deportation of U Visa, T Visa, and VAWA Self-Petitioners before their cases are adjudicated.  Deporting applicants before a decision is reached on their cases undermines the integrity of these critical protections and discourages individuals from coming forward to access justice. This bill would expand on the protections established by a bipartisan majority in Congress for immigrant survivors.

As of March 2019, over 239,000 U visa applications were pending review by the Department of Homeland Security.  Under current law, only 10,000 visas can be assigned each year. According to U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency is adjudicating U Visa petitions filed in 2014.  This backlog hinders law enforcement’s ability to solve crimes and protect our communities.