McALLEN, Texas - The federal government has already reached its cap on special visas for crime victims, just a few months into the fiscal year, the fastest the limit has been reached since the U.S. government started issuing them in 2008, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The visas are meant to help authorities investigate crimes committed against people who are not legally in the U.S. and to provide a level of security to crime victims who otherwise might fear they could be deported if they come forward.
Some advocates say it's a positive sign that the program is being used. It may also suggest that Congress should revisit the statutory cap of 10,000 on the so-called U visas.
The agency announced the cap was reached Wednesday, less than 2 ½ months into the fiscal year. The second-fastest year to the cap was 2010 -- the first year it was reached -- but that took 9 ½ months.
Although the cap has been reached, the agency continues accepting and reviewing petitions. Those initially deemed eligible are placed on a waiting list and will be in line to receive a U visa when next year's allotment is offered beginning Oct. 1.
The visas were created in legislation passed in 2000, and the agency has issued them to more than 89,600 victims and family members since 2008. About 75 percent of U visas are granted on the basis of domestic violence or sexual assault crimes.
In exchange for helping authorities investigate or prosecute crimes, victims are permitted to remain in the country for four years and apply for a work permit. After three years, they can apply to be legal permanent residents.
Victims must first get a "certification of helpfulness" from a local, state or federal investigating agency or a prosecutor or judge, and some agencies may balk, at least initially.
Capt. Norberto Leal of the Hidalgo County Sheriff's office in South Texas said his agency receives a request to certify for a U visa application every week.
"Them (victims) having access to this or the potential qualification for a visa status, they're sometimes more willing to cooperate with our agency," Leal said. Typically, the victims are referred to him by nonprofit organizations that provide legal aid or work with victims of domestic violence.
One of those groups is Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, which provides legal services to low-income Texans and immigrants who have entered the country illegally. The organization represents hundreds of victims applying for U visas every year, said attorney Lauren Joyner.
"Victims already face incredibly long wait times for a decision on their application for a visa and work permit -- currently well over a year," Joyner said. Now that the cap is in effect, victims who appear to be eligible will receive a deferred status, but then will have to wait several months to receive a work permit, she said.
"These are individuals who are focused on trying to move on from really awful situations and who are working to create financial and emotional security for themselves and their families."
This is the fifth straight year that the cap has been reached.
"I think it's probably still underutilized, but the fact that they've reached the cap is great in the sense that it's being utilized to the maximum extent possible," Robert Cisneros, a senior immigration attorney at the Empire Justice Center in White Plains, New York, said. "It would be better if there were more of them, but Congress would have to step in and do that and they probably should."
Dora Cobache, 43, was a victim of domestic violence for 18 of the 20 years she's lived in Texas but was afraid to report her husband to police because she wasn't legally in the U.S.
"He threatened me that they could deport me if I reported it," said Cobache, a native of Guatemala now living in Mission, Texas.
After she decided to press charges, her husband was convicted of assault causing family violence, and with the help of Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, Cobache successfully applied for a U visa. It took just over a year for approval, but she received her visa in October.
"Now I'm extremely happy," Cobache said. "Now I can pay taxes. Now I can look for work. Now I can walk free, visit my daughter in Austin."