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December 21, 2014

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Visas for victims: Mother with college dreams among valley’s first to benefit

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Steve Marcus

Rosa Parra of Tijuana, Mexico, received a U.S. visa, good for four years, in July, years after cooperating with Metro police as they investigated her husband on allegations of kidnapping and abuse. A step closer to citizenship, Parra plans to apply for student loans so she can get her college degree.

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Rosa Parra sits in a comfortable, neat kitchen, talking about how her former husband attacked her with a machete, burned down her house and kidnapped her younger son.

Before he could be tried in connection with any of those allegations, he escaped to Mexico after posting bail in 2003. But Metro Police investigated all of it, and she cooperated with the authorities, making her eligible for a program that was then relatively new and would allow her to stay legally in the United States.

Six years later Parra has become one of the first women in the Las Vegas Valley to receive a U visa, a step toward becoming a permanent resident and then a citizen. She is one of 55 locally to get the visas and one of 4,400 nationwide. A backlog remains of about 160 applications in the valley and at least 13,000 applications nationwide.

The federal government is awarding the visas nearly a decade after Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act to assist victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking and other crimes, who are in the country illegally. The law allows eligible victims to receive work permits and obtain social services and the visa itself, as long as they cooperate with law enforcement in the investigation and prosecution of the crimes. The visa is good for four years.

The logjam in processing the applications stemmed from the federal government’s inability, since 2000, to write regulations for applying the law. In recent years the Homeland Security Department’s ombudsman and several members of Congress ripped the department for its inaction.

The agency finally issued regulations at the end of last year on fees and on becoming a resident and citizen.

And Parra finally received the phone call informing her of her visa on July 15, from Angela Morrison, legal director of the UNLV Boyd School of Law immigration law clinic. The clinic has handled most of the U visa cases in the valley.

When Parra hung up, stirred by the news, the first person she thought to tell was Rosonea Warren, her case manager at Safe House, a local nonprofit organization for victims of domestic violence. She dialed Warren’s number, in tears.

Safe House is where Parra and her two sons went after leaving their home in March 2003. The next day Parra’s husband burned their house down, thinking they were still inside, Parra alleges. So she and her boys stayed in the shelter nearly four months. During that time, Parra divorced her husband.

She also began receiving annual work permits, the federal government’s allowance for people who are in legal limbo but must support themselves and their families. This went on for years. Parra improved her English and, after two swings at passing the state test, became licensed to sell real estate. She also began selling insurance.

But she never struck from her mind an idea she has held since her childhood in Tijuana — studying medicine. That was before she followed her former husband’s plan to settle in the United States. When she gains the status of permanent resident sometime next year, she can then apply for student loans. “I’ll graduate from college the same time as my older son,” she jokes.

Parra’s story shows why the U visa program is needed, Morrison says.

“It provides permanency for people and allows them to move beyond (being a victim of) a crime to build something in the United States,” she says.

She points out that Parra and many of the thousands of others finally receiving the visas have children born in the United States, so their visas also help preserve “family unity.”

Warren, who has helped about 20 U visa applicants at her shelter, sees another reason for the program. “It’s morally right,” she says. “If we weren’t willing to reach out to people like her, the world would be a worse place.”

Metro Police Lt. Ray Steiber has to sign off on each U visa application locally. He directs the program out of Metro’s special victims section and has three members of his department review each application, careful to follow federal rules for determining eligibility.

This is important, he says, because “it is easy to become subjective” when investigating many of the allegations in the applications. Steiber has rejected about 10 percent.

He says the Justice Department has asked him to train other departments on his staff’s protocol, because it is seen as a model in law enforcement circles.

Steiber participates in the program because he sees it as another crime-fighting tool. “Regardless of whether a person is here lawfully or not, it doesn’t take away that they’re victims of crime,” Steiber says. The U visa program “works to identify, prevent and prosecute crime in the community,” because it encourages victims to cooperate with law enforcement who otherwise would be unlikely to do so.

Parra, meanwhile, looks forward to her new life. During the past six years, she says, the United States has been “a gilded cage.” Now, she says, “it’s my home.”

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