Senate bill would aid crime victims and witnesses with visas  

Legislation would help undocumented immigrants secure needed documentation 

THE STATE SENATE on Monday advanced a bill that would require state agencies and local law enforcement offices to assist immigrants who testify in criminal cases or are victims of human trafficking and domestic violence with documentation they need to pursue visa applications.   

The legislation, filed by Sen. Mark Montigny, would impact undocumented immigrants who apply for U and T visas. Those are types of permanent residency visas for undocumented immigrants who are victims of a violent crime, kidnapping, or domestic violence, and those who assist law enforcement authorities in investigations.  

Part of the application process involves obtaining a certification document from the agency involved in the investigation, usually police departments, the Department of Children and Families, or district attorney’s office. The visa application can’t be filed without that paperwork, a process that advocates say often takes more than six months, and in some cases, more than a year. The long wait lengthens an already drawn-out process — it takes around 13 years on average to get a U-visa, according to government data and attorneys. 

Montigny’s bill creates a 90-day requirement for those agencies to respond to immigrants who request certification.  

The bill standardizes the process for law enforcement, prosecution, judicial, and investigatory agencies to provide noncitizen victims, who have been helpful in the investigation or prosecution of serious crimes, with the certification form they need to apply for a U visa or T visa.  

Montigny, a New Bedford Democrat, authored a 2011 law that criminalized human trafficking for commercial and sexual exploitation. The law also provided survivors with critical protections, including a trust fund that taps assets seized from convicted traffickers. His new bill would go farther in aiding immigrant victims and witnesses. 

It’s time to “stop punishing” people who are victims of crimes and help with investigations, and create a streamlined certification process, Montigny said in Monday’s Senate session. 

“We must do everything we can to provide victims access to the resources and protections they need to escape this abuse, especially at a time when immigrants have been the target of intense fear-mongering and attacks in our political discourse,” he said.  

The bill would help immigrants like a young undocumented woman from El Salvador who became key to the investigation of her boyfriend’s murder in 2016 when she was only 17. 

The woman, whose name is not being used to protect her safety, lives in a Boston suburb and was the last person to see her boyfriend alive before he was shot and left critically wounded beneath a bridge. He died two days later.  

She has been key in the investigation of the local police department and district attorney. Two members of the notorious Central American gang MS-13 were ultimately convicted of her boyfriend’s murder.  

Since the killing, the woman said has been followed by MS-13 members and was threatened via text and phone call as the trial dates neared. She dropped out of high school when members of the gang threatened her there, and now works for laundry service, only because there’s a van that picks her up at home and takes her directly to her employer.  

Each time she’s been threatened, she’s reported the incident to police.  

“I’m always afraid,” she said in a Spanish language interview. She said she hopes that with U-visa, she might be able to restart her life with legal residency in another state, removed from the watch of MS-13 in Massachusetts. “I just want a new life,” she said.  

She has been unable to get any feedback since May, however, about her request for certification from the district attorney’s office that handled the case.  

“I just hope that this bill can require them to respond to me somehow. I can’t apply for the visa until I have some help from them,” she said.  

The young woman said she does not want to return to El Salvador, where she hasn’t lived since she was a small child, because MS-13 members here have connections in her hometown.  

“This bill makes a tremendous difference in the lives of immigrant survivors at such a critical moment during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Julie Dahlstrom, director of the Immigrants’ Rights and Human Trafficking Program at Boston University School of Law. It sends a clear signal to immigrant survivors, who are often fearful to report to law enforcement, that they can step forward to report violent crime and human trafficking and access important protections.”  

Dahlstrom and a group of law students assisted Montigny’s office in drafting the language of the bill.  

The document state and local agencies must fill out requires a description of the criminal activity investigated or prosecuted and the involvement of the immigrant asking for the visa — as either a victim or key witness. 

Karen Bobadilla, of the Cambridge-based nonprofit De Novo, who is accredited to represent immigrants before US Citizenship and Immigration Services, says she’s waited more than six months for certifications from the Middlesex and Suffolk district attorneys’ officesShe said she has faced similar problems with lack of communication from the Department of Children and Families, which investigates crimes related to child trafficking. 

 The U and T visas were created by Congress in 2000 as part of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act to help immigrant victims come forward to law enforcement about crimes. Both visas not only create a way to remain legally in the US to work and reside, but also include a path to citizenship.   

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

At least 13 states that have implemented statewide standards for visa certifications. 

The bill’s prospects are unclear. It now moves to the House with only three weeks left in the Legislature’s the two-year legislative session.