by: Mark Becker Updated:
- 10,000 U-Visas a year given to victims of certain crimes, family members
- Some exploiting the system to stay in the country illegally
- Misconception is U-Visa a quick ticket to citizenship, but takes years to be granted
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Six years ago, Cristian Fernandez’s world changed when he was shot in the back outside a club on Albemarle Road. After months in the hospital, doctors told Fernandez he would be paralyzed from the chest down for the rest of his life, and he has spent most of the last six years on a bed in his family’s small living room in east Charlotte.
Because he came to the United States illegally as a child, his mother could not get the help he would need to pay the mounting medical bills, so in 2013 he applied for a special visa that would give him a start on legal residency and eventually U.S. citizenship.
It’s called a U-Visa, and the government hands out 10,000 of them a year to victims of certain -- mostly violent -- crimes and their family members. Fernandez and his mother received theirs in July and it immediately began opening doors.
“Without a U-Visa I wouldn't have help with my medicines. I'd probably be dead right now,” Fernandez said.
A U-Visa is good for four years and just filling out an application can delay or stop deportation proceedings altogether.
Not surprisingly, that's led to a flood of applications at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, where they have had more than 700 thus far in 2014.
But it’s also opened the door to fraud.
Take the case of Oscar Beltran, for example. In May he told police two men approached him in a parking lot on Kilborne Drive, hit him in the forehead with a gun and stole $6,000.
But later, police determined that Beltran had staged the robbery -- they say in court papers -- in order to get a U-Visa because he had an upcoming immigration hearing.
“I'm sure there are others like this. I have seen cases that have come to my office,” said George Miller, an attorney who handles immigration cases -- including applications for U-Visas. “I have seen some that I've felt like possibly fraud was involved and I wasn't going to be involved with it and I told the people so.”
U-Visas: How rare is the exploitation
Adriana Galvez-Taylor, an attorney with the Latin-American Coalition, said fraudulent claims for U-Visas are rare.
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“Oh, I've heard that story often. That does happen,” she said.
She said there may be a misconception in the Hispanic and other immigrant communities that the U-Visa is a quick ticket to citizenship, but went on to say that it really takes years and very few are ultimately granted.
“It's not a golden ticket…because it's not easy to get,” Galvez-Taylor said.
One of the reasons it is not easy to get is because applicants go through a rigorous screening process that begins with the district attorney’s office.
“You're always going to have the opportunity to abuse the system, but I think that we have safeguards in place to protect against that,” said Robyn Withrow, the assistant district attorney in charge of the screening process.
She said she has seen about 250 cases so far in 2014 and passed only about 30 percent on for further consideration in the process, which eventually ends at the federal U-Visa office in Vermont.
Beltran’s case is not one of them. He is scheduled to appear in court in December to answer to a charge of delaying a police investigation. Eyewitness News went to his home several times but he was not there, and a woman who answered the door said she could not comment on the case.
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