In the United States, immigrant victims of certain crimes can be granted special visas preventing them from deportation. Called “U visas,” these federal certificates first require a signoff from local law enforcement to confirm that the applicant is a victim of one of 28 qualifying violent crimes and has been helpful to law enforcement.
In Portland, police have been uniquely resistant to granting that approval to eligible immigrants without legal residency.
According to a report by the city ombudsman’s office released Wednesday, Portland police rejected more than half of all U visa requests in 2021 and the first half of 2022. This is much higher than the average rejection rate for all Oregon police departments.
The Police Bureau’s actions “threatened to undermine its mission to solve crime and protect the community,” the report said. “They also conflicted with the City’s policy of making Portland a welcoming and safe place for immigrants and, more broadly, with the City’s equity goals.”
Of the 200 U visa applications they reviewed, the ombudsman staff identified 53 that appeared to meet the program’s qualifications.
“As a result of these systemic failures, more than four dozen undocumented immigrant crime victims and their family members were denied the opportunity to apply for visas for which they may have been eligible,” the report reads.
It’s unknown how many of those applicants have been deported since reaching out to the Police Bureau for help.
The ombudsman’s office acts as the watchdog within City Hall, fielding complaints from Portlanders who say they have been harmed by city policies.
A woman whose U visa was twice rejected by the Portland Police Bureau filed a complaint with the ombudsman’s office in 2022. The woman had filed a police report after being physically assaulted by her partner, an allegation which was supported by witness statements and a doctor’s report suggesting that she had been raped. Yet a Portland officer determined the case lacked probable cause to charge her partner on domestic violence or sexual assault charges. The officer rejected the visa request.
The ombudsman’s office “concluded that the determination of no probable cause was not supported by the facts in the police report,” and urged the Police Bureau to reconsider the visa application. The bureau did and approved her application.
According to this woman’s lawyer, she would have been deported in July 2022 if her visa had not been granted.
But not all applicants were granted this type of hands-on appeals process.
After digging into police data and reports on U visa applications, the ombudsman’s office discovered dozens of similar incidents. The office concluded that these rejections were largely due to officers misunderstanding the federal law and misstating facts from police reports.
In one case, a person was inside a house when someone began shooting into the building. Yet police rejected their application because the applicant was not the intended target of the shooting. According to the federal policy, bystanders to violent crimes are also eligible for the U visa.
In another instance, police rejected a man’s application for being uncooperative, because he couldn’t describe the people who threatened him. Yet the police report notes that the suspects “told the applicant to get on his knees and not look at the suspects or they would kill him.”
U visas can be a game-changer for immigrants living in the United States without legal residency. The visa offers lawful status for up to four years, the ability to work legally, and the possibility after three years to become a permanent resident. It also can extend lawful immigration protections to the visa holder’s family. The federal program was established in 2000 to help law enforcement track violent crimes that may go unreported if a victim fears deportation.
Portland didn’t see this dip in U visa approval rates until recently. In 2020, the Police Bureau approved 89% of all U visa applications — 15% higher than the state average among other police agencies. But by 2021, Portland was approving just 48% of all U visas — nearly 30% below the state average.
The ombudsman’s report based this decline on a few factors, including a high turnover among police leadership since 2020. Six different police staff have overseen U visa requests since 2020, which could have led to inconsistent training. The report also found that wording about the purpose of the U visa program was cut from the Police Bureau’s U visa policy in 2018, and the policy is still missing key legal details.
The report went further to suggest the Police Bureau might be insufficiently trained on handling domestic violence cases, since many rejected applications centered on what appeared to be valid domestic violence allegations. It also noted that the bureau was inconsistent in using fluent interpreters to communicate with crime victims.
“In one case, a crime victim told us that the officer who claimed fluency in Spanish did not appear to understand her,” the report reads. “The Bureau may have rejected some U visa applications pertaining to situations where the responding officer did not fully understand the crime victim.”
The Police Bureau rejected a few of these characterizations in its response to the ombudsman’s report. Police Chief Chuck Lovell wrote that the bureau’s U visa policy is identical to a sample policy provided by the Oregon Department of Justice. He also noted that Portland officers were last trained on U visa applications in 2018, but police leaders have been unable to find similar training opportunities recently. Lovell said the bureau plans to offer this training again this year.
Lovell said his staff reviewed 49 of the rejected applications the ombudsman’s office identified and approved three. He said the bureau would reconsider the other 46 rejected applications if applicants had new information to add to their case.
Mayor Ted Wheeler, who oversees the Police Bureau, applauded the bureau for agreeing to reconsider applicants if alleged victims offer new information.
“As your report notes, ensuring that Portland is an inclusive and welcoming place for immigrants is an important value of my administration,” wrote Wheeler.
This response doesn’t sit well with those who work closely with Portland’s immigrant community. Latino Network is a nonprofit that works directly with Latino immigrants in Portland, among other things. Latino Network leaders rebuked Lovell’s response to the ombudsman’s report in a written statement.
“It is unacceptable that PPB’s initial response is to put the onus on the applicants to provide more information before their application is re-reviewed,” the statement reads. “These applications were identified because, on their face, a denial was questionable.”
Evelyn Kocher, a spokesperson for Latino Network, said that she knows the Police Bureau’s frequent rejection of U visas have kept Latino immigrants in Portland from trying to apply. If the process had a higher clearance rate, she believes it could benefit Portland’s immigrant community.
“It would be a step towards making our communities a safer place,” Kocher said. “It would also enable folks that are undocumented — that often have to put up with a lot of illegal behavior to be in this country — to seek justice.”