The man stepped up to the bank counter in Calumet City and handed teller Cynthia Salazar an envelope with a message written on it: “Give me $10,000.”
Then, he made the same demand out loud but with the added threat to comply, or, “I’ll kill everyone you know.”
After she handed over the money she had, he left. Salazar was so shaken it was months before she returned to work at the TCF bank branch in the south suburb.
But she cooperated with the police and the FBI, telling them what she could remember in hopes of helping them catch the robber.
Later, Salazar asked the Calumet City police department for a little help herself.
A 26-year-old mother of two, Salazar moved here from Mexico when she was 8. She’s been allowed to stay in the United States until now under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA. But Salazar is not a legal permanent U.S. resident.
She hoped to change that by applying for a permanent visa under a program for undocumented immigrants who are crime victims — what’s called a “U visa.” But she can’t do that unless a law enforcement agency certifies that she has cooperated with their investigation.
And, even after a year, the Calumet City police have refused to fill out the paperwork certifying that Salazar cooperated with them, though the department’s own reports show she did.
Assistant Police Chief Thomas Di Fiori told Salazar’s immigration lawyer his department won’t help a crime victim apply for a U visa unless the victim’s assistance results in an arrest and prosecution.
“Unfortunately, anyone can say they were willing” to help, Di Fiori wrote in an email in May denying Salazar’s request. “I am sorry, but if we did that, we’d have to sign them all.”
Salazar’s experience with the police in the south suburb isn’t unusual, according to records and interviews with immigration rights advocates. They say similar requests are routinely denied even though the law allows the police to help undocumented immigrants in such cases.
In the 12 months that ended Aug. 31, more than 3,100 applications were filed for U visas in Illinois — the third-most in the United States, behind only California and Texas, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Government figures show 755 of those visas were granted to applicants from Illinois, and 81 were denied by federal authorities. That doesn’t include those, like Salazar, who can’t apply because local law enforcement agencies won’t provide the paperwork needed for their visa applications.
The idea behind the U visa program was to get undocumented immigrants to be more willing to come forward to help put criminals behind bars. Many immigrants without legal status avoid talking to authorities because they’re afraid they’ll be deported.
“Law enforcement is getting assistance from community members who might not otherwise come forward,” says Trisha Teofilo Olave, a lawyer who focuses on U visa cases for the National Immigrant Justice Center in downtown Chicago.
But immigrant rights activists say officials in the Chicago area, particularly in suburban communities, are often reluctant to help the crime victims who have assisted them.
Sometimes, they say, the police won’t even respond to people seeking certification of their cooperation in an investigation.
A proposal in Springfield would have let authorities deny certification requests only if they were unable to determine a visa-seeker was victimized — regardless of whether the crime was solved. But that part of a larger measure ended up being dropped.
There was no doubt Salazar was a robbery victim on June 17, 2016. A bank security camera captured an image of the robber who threatened her: a tall, well-built man wearing a floppy, black hat and large sunglasses that covered much of his face.
The bank was busy, and the other three tellers apparently didn’t notice what was going on. One customer who witnessed the robbery didn’t say anything until later.
Salazar says she spoke to the robber quietly. “I just told him, ‘Don’t do this — I have two daughters,’ ” she says.
She didn’t have ready access to $10,000. “I just pulled out $1,000 in 50s,” she says. “I guess he thought it was a lot, so he took it.”
Before leaving, the robber told Salazar to go into a break room and stay there for five minutes. As soon as she got there, she called 911.
In their report, the Calumet City police wrote that Salazar provided a description of the robber and told them what happened. FBI agents arrived to take over the investigation.
Salazar has continued to cooperate, meeting again with an FBI agent in January. An FBI spokesman says no one has been arrested, and the case remains open.
In January, Salazar’s lawyer, Rosalba Pina, emailed the Calumet City police department, asking them to certify she cooperated. Di Fiori, the assistant chief, said no.
“This is an FBI matter, as it is a bank robbery,” he wrote Pina. “Our case is closed. We have not identified any suspects to prosecute, therefore your client is not needed by us to aid in the prosecution of an offender.”
Nothing in the federal U visa law says a conviction or even an arrest is required for police to certify the cooperation of an undocumented immigrant — a point Pina made in a follow-up email.
Di Fiori responded: “We do not sign off on a U visa simply because they were a victim and reported a crime. We only sign off if they actually aid in prosecution, etc.”
In an interview, Di Fiori says the Calumet City Police Department doesn’t have a written policy on U visa certification requests.
“We’re not obligated to sign off on anything — it’s our discretion,” he says. “If it’s an old case, or if someone’s not actively involved in the prosecution of the case, we don’t sign off on them. It’s that simple.”
Di Fiori won’t comment specifically on the requests from Salazar.
But he points to a potential problem with U visa requests: “What if some people were to make up the fact that they were a victim of a crime so they can get the U visa? I’m not saying that happened here.”
Salazar says the rejection “makes no sense to me.” She and her lawyer say they think Calumet City authorities don’t want to assist Latino immigrants as much as they could.
Salazar was able to get her job at the bank because she applied for and received a temporary reprieve under DACA, the program begun by President Barack Obama. President Donald Trump has indicated that DACA participants won’t face deportation.
But a U visa can give an immigrant permanent residency status and an eventual path to citizenship — which DACA cannot.
Spurned by Calumet City, Salazar is hoping to receive certification instead from the FBI, whose spokesman in Chicago declined to comment on her case.
The Calumet City police also denied a request this year for certification for Salazar’s husband, Alejandro Recio, who was attacked by three men who put a cable around his neck and stole his cell phone in March 2003, according to police reports. The police said his case was too old, though the law doesn’t say someone has to file within a certain period to obtain a certification letter from police.
Pina, Salazar’s lawyer, says that if police don’t help undocumented immigrants who try to aid them, “It chills the investigation of criminal offenses because the victims think, ‘What is the use?’ ”
In other Chicago suburbs, the police have cited a range of reasons for denying certification to victims who provide testimony.
Maria del Socorro Ocampo Andraca, 27, a DACA participant who’s a retail merchandising manager, says she hoped to apply for a U visa, citing the testimony she gave against a man who fondled her when she was in fifth grade.
The man — a distant cousin who lived with her family — went back to Mexico after she and her family contacted school and child-welfare authorities about the incident in 2001.
After the incident, her attacker “talked nice to her and told her not to scream or say anything,” according to a Wheeling police report.
Ocampo says her parents, who are immigrants from Mexico, hesitated to seek police help initially.
“They didn’t know what to do,” she says. “They were in shock. ‘Do we want to get the cops involved?’ ”
Their fear, Ocampo says, was “due to their status” at that time as undocumented immigrants.
Still, they told school officials, who contacted state child-welfare authorities. With a Wheeling detective watching behind a two-way window, she acted out the assault using a doll, as a social worker had instructed her.
Thirteen years later, after learning of the U visa program, Ocampo sought certification of her involvement in the investigation from Wheeling police. They said no. Records show a Wheeling police commander “did not feel comfortable allowing U visa petitions for cases where the offender was never charged” and declined to sign the form for Ocampo.
She says it is still “very hard” to think of what happened to her as a 10-year-old girl, and her pain is compounded by the police department’s reluctance to aid her.
Wheeling police officials reject far more requests for U visa certifications than they grant, according to records obtained by the Sun-Times. In the past four years, they have denied 49 cases, the documents show, and signed 15 U visa certification requests. Since the beginning of 2016, Wheeling Police Chief James J. Dunne personally denied 23 requests and approved seven.
The records do not reflect the reasons for most of the denials, though in some cases police noted that they would not sign off on certification forms “due to no offender found” or they had “agreed to sign only if arrest of offender occurs in the future.”
Dunne says Ocampo’s request “checked 80 percent of the boxes.” He says she and her family cooperated as fully as his agency wanted. But he says he denied her appeal last year of her initial rejection because it wasn’t filed in a timely enough fashion, though his department doesn’t set a specific deadline. Nor does it have a written policy for how to handle U visa certifications, according to the chief.
“To me, something within five years is timely,” Dunne says. “It is subjective, to some degree.”
Asked why Wheeling rejects most U visa certification requests, Dunne says many of them involve older cases. He also says his department automatically rejects any request from “victims of assaults who were engaged in gang activity,” as well as victims of domestic violence who “still have relationships” with their assailants.
Immigrant rights advocates say other law-enforcement agencies, including the Chicago Police Department and the Cook County state’s attorney, have been more open to helping victims and witnesses who want to get U visas.
An undocumented immigrant from Guatemala got a U visa certification from the police in Lyons after he was molested in 2015 at a suburban gym. The man testified against Juan J. Ibarra, a former Chicago Public Schools employee. Ibarra was convicted last August of sexual abuse against two other victims and battery against the Guatemalan man.
The Guatemalan victim, who asked not to be identified, says he found it difficult to talk with police, but they did not ask him about his status.
His lawyers at the National Immigrant Justice Center say it could be years before he gets a response from federal authorities and is granted a U visa.
But the Guatemalan man has no regrets about getting involved. He says he’s certain his attacker would have victimized more people had he not come forward.
“It’s one less criminal,” the man says. “Having a better country starts with one person stepping forward and builds from there.”
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