Maritza Torres was almost killed when a truck driven by an impaired driver slammed into her as she walked home from class on a warm spring morning in Bellingham.
It was May 11, 2007.
Michael W. Joyner, 42, was high and behind the wheel of his Dodge Ram when he drove off Northwest Avenue and struck the 20-year-old head on.
Torres was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center with life-threatening injuries, including a broken pelvis and a fractured skull.
Her mother, Lourdes Torres, cried as she sat at her kitchen table and recalled arriving at the hospital to see her daughter.
“She was bleeding from the ears and the mouth and the nose,” she said. “The doctors said they would do the most they could do and it was up to God.”
Torres spent six months at Harborview and nearly a year in rehabilitation.
“I ruptured my left lung, something was wrong with my liver, my tailbone broke – and my wrist,” she said Sunday at her family’s home, just two blocks from where she nearly lost her life.
It wasn’t until two years after the ordeal that Torres, who was in the country illegally, discovered that the near-fatal crash could be her ticket to U.S. citizenship.
Torres was born in Mazatlán, Mexico and traveled with her family to Everson, Wash., at the age of 9 after her aunt married a U.S. citizen.
While she entered the country as a visitor, she remained here illegally.
The family eventually moved to Bellingham where Torres went to school at a local technical college and worked off the books as a receptionist.
In 2009, her friend gave her the name of an attorney in Seattle who could help her find a path to citizenship through something called a U-Visa, or “victim visa.” Torres said she had never heard of the visa, which gives victims of certain crimes an opportunity to stay in the country legally for up to four years without fear of deportation.
The U.S. government has allowed no more than 10,000 such visas to be granted nationwide each year since 2009; not nearly enough to meet the growing demand.
In 2010, for example, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) received 10,742 U-Visa applications. That number more than doubled to 24,768 in 2012, according to numbers provided by USCIS.
Those who are not approved before the agency hits its 10,000-visa limit have to wait until the next fiscal year.
Individuals who apply for a U-Visa must meet a specific set of criteria.
First, applicants must have been the victim of a qualifying crime, most of which are violent crimes such as domestic violence, sexual assault, and incest. The victim must also submit an application signed by a law enforcement official – such as a police officer or prosecutor – who can attest to the fact that the victim cooperated with investigators.
“The purpose of the U-Visa is to empower people to come forward,” said Vicky Dobrin, a Seattle-based immigration attorney. She and her partner were hired to handle Torres’s U-Visa application, referred to as a Form I-918.
Torres qualified for and was granted a U-Visa because she was the victim of a qualifying crime (felonious assault) and cooperated with the investigating agency, which led to a conviction and seven-year prison sentence against the man who nearly killed her. She also had no criminal history that would preclude her from receiving a U-Visa.
Dobrin said her firm relies mostly on word of mouth and has seen an increase in the number of undocumented immigrants seeking lawful status through a victim visa.
“A lot of people who call us are specifically calling because of the U-Visa,” she said. “Definitely, the word has spread that this is an option – that this exists.”
The fee for her firm to handle such an application ranges from $0 for cases done pro bono to $3,000 for those that require more complicated paperwork. Her office successfully obtains U-Visas for roughly 10 to 20 clients each year and has only ever had one application denied.
“In part because we’re so careful about what we file,” she said. “It’s a formula. You know as an attorney – almost in every situation – if the person should be approved.”
While Dobrin said all of her clients deserve to receive one of the 10,000 U-Visas available each year – others aren’t so sure.
Earlier this year, Lakewood Police Chief Bret Farrar received a manila envelope in the mail from the Dobrin & Han law firm.
Inside was a packet of papers, including a Form I-918 with a Post-it note telling Chief Farrar where to sign his name.
“They’re asking me to endorse a person to allow them to get a U-Visa to stay in the United States based upon them being the victim of a crime in my jurisdiction,” said Farrar, whose signature would be a required step in the application process.
The letter pertained to a man named Jose Adrian Vera Lopez, an undocumented immigrant who was shot in the leg when he was 12 years old.
According to police records, Lopez was the victim of a drive-by shooting on April 23, 2000.
He and his friends had been at a dance at the B & I shopping center when an argument inside led to a confrontation outside. Lopez was shot in the left thigh by an unknown suspect, who fled the scene.
Police took statements from witnesses and Lopez was transported to nearby Mary Bridge Hospital to receive treatment for his injuries.
The case eventually went cold and was all but forgotten – until earlier this year, when Lopez realized that the injury could provide him a path to citizenship through a victim visa. He enlisted the services of Dobrin & Han, who sent a letter to Chief Farrar on his behalf.
In the letter, Vicky Dobrin argued that Lopez met the requirements for a U-Visa because he was the victim of a felonious assault and cooperated with Lakewood police by providing a statement. What she failed to mention, however, was that Lopez has since been convicted of a drug crime and is currently serving an 18-month federal prison sentence for entering the country illegally after being deported for a third time.
On May 17, 2008, Lopez was convicted of conspiracy to possess a controlled substance with intent to distribute after police arrested him with 20 pounds of marijuana at a home in Spanaway. He was sentenced to one year in prison and deported from the U.S. following his term.
Lopez has since reentered the country illegally on several occasions, and was arrested most recently after crossing the border in February of this year near Donna, Texas.
Chief Farrar discovered Lopez’s criminal history after digging into his background, as he does with any undocumented immigrants who ask for his signature to obtain a U-Visa.
“I check them every which way that I can to make sure that I’m not endorsing a criminal so they can get a visa to stay here,” he said. “We want to make sure that legitimate people are getting access to these visas and they’re not being wasted on people who shouldn’t be in this country.”
Farrar said he has signed U-Visa applications in the past, but will not sign the application for Lopez based on his record.
Asked why her firm would pursue a U-Visa on Lopez’s behalf, Dobrin said there is more to his story than his rap sheet.
According to Dobrin, Lopez’s father was murdered in front of him as a child and the experience of being shot in the leg at age 12 likely contributed to his decision to deal drugs as an adult. She added that Lopez tried to reenter the U.S. illegally out of fear for his safety, having been kidnapped by drug cartel in Mexico.
According to a spokesperson for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which has the final say on whether U-Visa applications are approved, Lopez would not necessarily be denied because of his criminal history and could file for a waiver.
“The chances, obviously, for someone like him are very slim,” Dobrin admitted. “He would have a lot of hurdles to overcome to have any chance of getting a visa – and I told his family that.”
‘The only option’
Chief Farrar said he has started to receive more letters from law firms like Dobrin & Han, requesting he help illegal immigrants get access to visas after being victimized in his jurisdiction.
“I used to get them sporadically, but in the last month I’ve received two. I used to get maybe one every year,” said Farrar, who has signed about 25 percent of U-Visa applications that have come across his desk.
“If they are truly a victim of a crime and they truly help us in the investigation of that crime, then I’m fine with that,” he said.
He has refused to endorse other applications, like one on behalf of a victim of domestic violence who continued to live with her abuser.
Dobrin admits that not all cases reflect the true spirit of the U-Visa – which was designed to encouraged victims to come forward without fear of deportation.
“There are people who are more sympathetic and fit more squarely within the purpose of the law than others, but if the crime fits and they cooperated then your client should be approved,” she said. “Someone might not like it, but it’s the law.”
Asked why one illegal immigrant should be given priority over another, simply by being the victim of a crime, Dobrin said the system isn’t always fair.
“If this person is eligible, I’m not going to sit here and say – ‘that’s not fair, I’m not going to do his case.'”
Dobrin said in many cases, clients come to her in desperation. In Lopez’s case, for instance, a U-Visa might be his last hope to stay in the country.
“That’s a shot in the dark. I told the family we can try,” she said. “I think that a lot of people are turning to the U-Visa because there’s nothing else. It’s usually the only option for people who have nothing else.”
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