About eight years ago Mirsa Urias was working at a restaurant in Bakersfield. She was the only person working up front and says it was business as usual until one man entered.
“He pointed a gun at me and said I had to give him money," the 30-year-old says in Spanish. "I gave him money and he went running out of the store and threatened me before that. He said if I didn’t give him the money he would shoot me.”
Urias says she was the only witness to the robbery and law enforcement was depending on her to identify him. She calls the situation "traumatic," and even sought out help.
“I had to find a psychologist to help me a little," Urias says. "Yes, it did traumatize me a bit, but it’s an experience that’s not easy to deal with the first few days and while continuing to work. Another person would have quit, but since I needed the job I needed to stay and keep moving forward, you know?”
Now, Urias says she doing better.
She’s folding laundry in her living room while her 2-year-old plays with her toys and watches the Pixar film Coco. Her three children were all born in the United States, unlike her.
Urias was born in Mexico and has been living in the U.S undocumented. If she does get deported, she says, she has a plan to make sure her kids are cared for in the Valley. But, she has hope it won’t ever come to that because she’s in the process of getting legal residency through a program for victims of crimes, the U nonimmigrant visa, more widely known as a U Visa.
A U visa is an option offered to undocumented immigrants who have been victims of violent crimes. The program was designed to help law enforcement catch criminals and can be a pathway to citizenship for immigrants.
Although, federal changes and Immigration and Customs Enforcement presence at local courthouses could threaten the program. The visa gives victims protection from deportation and a pathway to citizenship as long as they meet certain requirements and cooperate with law enforcement.
That's how it's worked for Urias so far. She says she was the only witness to the robbery and law enforcement depended on her to testify in court.
“I had to give testimony to the police and help them so they can identify the person who robbed me and also go to court to give testimony,” Urias says.
But lately, there have been concerns about how the program is changing.
For instance, local immigration attorney Jeremy Clason says there have been some changes during the filing process for green cards since President Trump took office.
Right now, when someone gets approved for a U Visa their past crimes are pardoned. After three years of having a U Visa, recipients can apply for a green card. But now, Clason says during this step in the process there have been adjustments that raise concerns.
“If a waiver was granted, if you were given your waiver or your pardon under the U Visa those past crimes from X amount of years ago that were already forgiven should not thereafter provide a basis for them denying your green card," Clason says. "But we’ve seen through experience that’s what’s happening under the Trump Administration. It’s really frustrating.”
Under the Obama Administration that didn’t happen, Clason says. They would not go back to reevaluate the crimes that happened before the U Visa status was applied. He says the Trump administration is reexamining past crimes, and now he says he has different conversations with his clients when it’s time for them to apply for residency.
“And what I’m telling them now during the consultation now is ‘Hey it’s green card time, but they’re going to re-litigate they’re going to reexamine all your past conducts even though it was quote on quote already forgiven,’” he says.
Clason says that’s happened in almost every green card application he’s filed for U Visa recipients under the current administration. As a result he says more U Visas will get denied. Clason's office hasn’t seen any denials yet, he says, but they’re concerned.
“The fact that they’re asking for me to prove to them why it’s so important for that this person continues to remain here and they didn’t ask for that same evidence back several years ago when they gave them the U Visa that in itself is an indication that they will increasingly be denying green card applications,” Clason says.
The government should give victims permanent residency because of their willingness to cooperate with law enforcement, Clason says. But he says it seems like the new administration is trying to find any way to deny green cards.
“U Visas are the most vulnerable members of our society, right?" Clason says. "These are the folks that have been victims of violent crimes in the U.S. and it has to be a violent crime and those are people who actually helped in the prosecution and or investigation of that crime against the perpetrator.”
This change isn’t his only concern when it comes to U Visas.
The recent ICE arrests at the Fresno courthouse are a concern, Clason says. Especially since some of his U Visa clients have to testify at the courthouse if subpoenaed. He says he has had clients that have been deported while waiting for their U Visas to be approved.
“I have had clients, several clients, who were deported From the U.S while there U Visas were pending and or while they were scheduled to testify against the perpetrator in their criminal cases,” Clason says.
Clason says that’s probably going to happen more often since President Trump issued a memo last year that changed some guidelines regarding deportations the last administration put in place. Under the Obama administration, people who had U Visas pending weren’t at risk of getting deported. But that’s not the case anymore.
“That U visa memo back from the Obama Administration was replaced by this other cryptic memo that says ‘I don’t care if you have a U Visa or not," Clason says. "If it’s not in the public interest we’re going to deport you even in the pendency of your new U Visa.”
That February 2017 memo reversed an Obama-era policy that prioritized deportations of undocumented immigrants with criminal convictions.
Other local immigration attorneys, like Olga Grosh, have concerns about ICE’s presence at the courthouse too.
“So if a victim is afraid to go to the courthouse to give testimony because of ICE, of being picked up or having problems with immigration then that prevents them from getting the initial U Visa of the support to law enforcement and cooperation to prosecute the perpetrator of the crime as well as getting the certification the second time around for the residency process,” says Grosh, who's an attorney in Fresno at Pacifika Immigration Law Group.
Grosh says ICE showing up at the courthouse in plain clothes and making arrests is causing fear. That fear, she says, could be the factor a victim doesn’t show up to testify.
Even though there have been no reports of victims being picked up by ICE locally, Grosh says news reports of it happening around the country are enough to scare some of her clients. She says this goes against the whole point of the U Visa.
“When victims of crime are being picked up by ICE that is counterproductive to the entire process of the U Visa that a victim should not be afraid of the police, that a victim should not be afraid of immigration just because they are a victim of a crime,” Grosh says.
ICE did not respond to requests for comment from Valley Public Radio.
Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims says victims shouldn’t be scared to report crimes. Especially since there have been no reports of victims being arrested at the Fresno courthouse. Just suspects of crimes.
“Here in Fresno they arrest people who are suspects and have committed crimes, not people that are in the courthouse to testify as a victim or a witness,” Mims says.
U Visa recipients shouldn’t be fearful of testifying at the courthouse, Mims says, and undocumented immigrant shouldn’t hesitate to report crimes.
“I think those that are raising the concern unfortunately are scaring the public more than they need to be," Mims says. "I mean the message is if you are a victim or a witness of crime and you get a U Visa you have some protection.”
But, back in Bakersfield, Urias says she can soon apply for a green card. She doesn’t think it’s going to be an easy or short process but says she’s patient.
Urias says even if U Visa’s didn’t exist, she would still be willing to cooperate with law enforcement.