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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Special U visas fast-track illegal immigrants to residency

The federal government has an unusual fast track to legal residency for illegal immigrants.

Antonio Luna's ticket was a bullet in the back.

The 30-year-old Mexican, who slipped into the United States in 2000, was delivering pizza to a narrow South Philadelphia street on a night two summers ago.

The customer on the steps, in a hat raked low, took his time paying - time enough for another man to leap from between parked cars and thrust a gun against Luna's forehead.

Luna gave up the food, his cellphone, and $140. The first man ransacked his car; the gunman forced him to the ground. "He told me, 'If you want to run, run,' " Luna recounted recently. "I didn't have a chance because he shot me" in the lower back.

Gushing blood, howling in pain, thinking he might die, Luna never imagined how the assault would better not only his life, but also that of his wife and two children.

The next morning, detectives came to his bed at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. They told him they did not care about his immigration status. They just wanted his help. He immediately picked the gunman from a book of mug shots. Police made the arrest that night.

For aiding the investigation, Luna got a reward: a "U visa."

It grants residency to illegal immigrants who have been victims of violence and cooperate with law enforcement. That could range from giving information to police to testifying at trial.

A U visa includes a work permit good for four years. After three years, the victim can apply for a green card, allowing permanent work-authorization and residency.

In the nearly three years that U visas have been available, about 25,000 victims and 19,000 relatives have received them. The number living in the Philadelphia area was not immediately available from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Lawyers who represent illegal immigrants say their risk of abuse, exploitation, and victimization is high because they fear deportation if they report a crime.

For years, Luna had tried to live small, to avoid notice.

After he was shot, his application for a U visa was guided by Brenda Gorski, a lawyer at Philadelphia's pro-immigrant Nationalities Services Center. Instead of dying, he said, he was "reborn." Because U visas are "derivative" - they include immediate family members - his wife, Beatriz, 27, mother of their two U.S.-born children, became a legal resident, too.

Congress created not only U visas, but also T visas, for victims of human trafficking.

Details at http://www.uscis.gov

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