The Travis County Sheriff's Office is hoping to quell some of the fears of the immigrant community after passage of SB4, also known as the anti-sanctuary cities law.
Sheriff Sally Hernandez came up with the idea to create pamphlets with information about how victims of certain crimes can apply for a temporary visa.
A U visa is granted to a victim or witness of certain crimes by the federal government, but each application is certified by a law enforcement agency or district attorney first. While the application is pending, the applicant cannot be removed from the United States.
After Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed the so-called anti sanctuary cities bill into law, fear spread throughout the immigrant community in Texas.
“I see up to ten people a day. Every one of them is nervous. They don't exactly know what to do,” said immigration specialist Thomas Esparza jr.
Many law enforcement agencies worried the law could make undocumented immigrants less likely to report a crime for fear they may be deported.
“I think it's going to convince people not only to not call in a crime, to not report if they're a victim, to not drive a car, to ride bikes, to walk to work or have their spouses, significant others or child take them to work, because nobody wants to take a chance that some bad cop is going to make an excuse or a pretense to stop them just to put them in deportation proceedings,” Esparza jr. said.
“I think that just with the political climate in general across the U.S. that we have victims not reporting crime and that's a concern for us. I mean, we care about all of the victims regardless of immigration status. We want to make sure that we have an avenue to ensure them they're safe to come and speak with us,” said Captain Craig Smith of the Travis County Sheriff’s Office.
There are protections for victims of certain crimes, even if the victim is an undocumented immigrant.
The federal government grants 10,000 U visa's to victims or witnesses of crimes each year. As long as the victim cooperates with the criminal investigation of a violent, enslavement, sexual or obstruction of justice crime they qualify.
If the federal government grants it, the U visa lasts for four years and in some cases leads to permanent residency, but there is a problem with the U visa program.
“People aren't going to know that and people have no idea,” Esparza jr. said.
The Travis County Sheriff's Office wants to change that. Last month, Sheriff Sally Hernandez decided to get pamphlets printed to educate the public about U visas.
So far, the English/Spanish version of the pamphlet is available, but the sheriff's office plans to print them in several more languages.
“Our target is to try to reach out to anyone that's an immigrant here in the United States, and we're going to use the pamphlets as a way, through our deputies, just as they're making contact with people, just to start handing the pamphlets out,” Smith said.
The Travis County Sheriff's Office receives about five to 10 U visa applications per month and they try to process them within 30 days so the applications can be sent to the federal government.
However, not all law enforcement agencies sign them and they are not required to do so.
Travis County deputies will be trained on the U visa program so they can answer questions as they hand out the pamphlets.