South Philadelphia is historically notorious for being the home of the city’s Italian mafia. But while the mob’s presence has quelled in the recent years, crime is still a prevalent issue in the community, especially crimes targeting the city’s largely growing immigrant communities.
Armed robbery and theft are particularly common occurrences in South Philadelphia. Within the past month, more than 16 robberies and 149 thefts in Southeast Philadelphia have been reported to the Philadelphia Police Department, with many more presumably not reported to officials because of immigration status.
The U-Visa, which was introduced in 2008, gives temporary legal status to immigrants who are victims of crime for up to four years. A U-Visa applicant may also petition documentation for his or her family members, including spouses, children, parents and unmarried siblings under 18 years of age.
“A lot of undocumented workers are really scared to go to the police,” said Elaine Cheung, a lawyer located in South Philadelphia who specializes in immigration issues. “They’re scared that the police will go into their house and not find their paperwork.”
Reluctance may be in part of the community not understanding this protective visa, which would would not allow Immigration and Customs Enforcement to file deportation papers.
“I think now it’s just a matter of word of mouth,” Cheung explained. “Churches and community centers need to know about it. Some people hear about it and they tell their relatives, and more people would become aware.”
While armed robberies and thefts can happen to anyone, Cheung notices that there are some establishments and groups that are more prone to being targeted, such as Chinese take-out restaurants, corner bodegas and delivery drivers. Since their wages are generally paid in cash, under-the-table workers are commonly mugged after a day’s work and are vulnerable targets for theft.
“A lot of them are located in crime-ridden areas and if [the stores] are open until one or two o’clock in the morning, they are likely to be victimized,” Cheung said. “Some people will make fake delivery calls and wait until the delivery guy comes. When the delivery guy knocks on their door, they say that there was no delivery call. And that is when the delivery person is jumped and robbed.”
Understandably, sexual abuse victims are also hesitant to report abuse to law enforcement, despite the fact that the U-Visa also protects victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. In 2010, 945 rape cases were reported to the Philadelphia Police Department and it can be argued that there were even more victims who did not wish to speak with police.
Community groups like Women Organized Against Rape hold various sessions and support groups for sexual assault victims. Latino Outreach Director Cristina Perez works specifically with the Latino community and seeks to inform Latino residents on how to get help from law enforcement.
“We need to teach the community about alternatives, and that they don’t have to keep quiet,” Perez said. “They may need a lot of help with medical issues and hospitalization, so we have a lot of clients who are compensated with U-Visas and went through the process.”
Perez also helps coordinate La Casa de los Soles, a non-profit community organization that advocates for justice on behalf of sexual assault victims. In conjunction with JUNTOS, the organization encourages resiliency to overcome abuse. Part of the group’s mission is to educate the community on legal assistance for victims.
“There shouldn’t be a mixing of [ICE] and the police force,” said Jasmine Rivera, Lead Organizer at JUNTOS. “Community members have seen others start the deportation process because of local police and so this fear has arisen. Some people just choose to move on and not report it.”
Depending on the crime committed and cooperation with local police, the U-Visa process may take up to a few months. After the U-Visa certification is signed by law officials, applicants may wait up to a month for it to be processed. Another month is needed to fill out all other paperwork with an immigration lawyer, which would then be mailed out to the United States Citizen and Immigration Services. A receipt notice and fingerprint notice will arrive back to the victim after two weeks and one month, respectively. Overall, the approval or denial of a U-Visa application may take up to 10 months to one year.
Although the wait may seem tedious for the paperwork, immigrant victims are still greatly encouraged to seek assistance, especially since an approval not only grants victims a temporary legal status, but he or she also is given an employment authorization document that allows him or her to legally work for the four years of the visa.
One gripe that law officials may have with the U-Visa is that the U.S. only approves up to 10,000 U-Visas per year, which may discourage victims from beginning the paperwork process.
“Sometimes a victim will apply for a U-Visa and will get a letter back saying that their case looks approvable,” said Cheung, “but they’ll have to wait till October to re-apply.”
Despite the U-Visa limit, Cheung hopes that more victims come forward about the crimes committed against them.
“It’s better to speak to an immigration lawyer that specializes in this law,” Cheung explains. “They will be protected and there is always help.”
“That’s why we’re here,” Perez said. “We need to tell the community what they can do to overcome the obstacles.”
– Text, video and images by Jennifer Nguyen