DCFS blocking undocumented survivors of child abuse from applying for visas allowing them to stay in U.S.

The Illinois child-welfare agency for years has refused to issue “U visa” certifications to survivors of child abuse despite a law mandating that it must decide whether they qualify within 90 business days after they apply.

SHARE DCFS blocking undocumented survivors of child abuse from applying for visas allowing them to stay in U.S.
Immigration lawyer Sara Dady, who says of DCFS’s inaction on U visa certification requests: “They are defying state law.”

Immigration lawyer Sara Dady on DCFS’s inaction on U visa certification requests: “They are defying state law.”

Illinois’ state child welfare agency for years has been illegally blocking undocumented survivors of child abuse from seeking a special visa for crime victims that would allow them to remain in the United States, an Injustice Watch investigation has found.

La Voz Sidebar

Lea este artículo en español en La Voz Chicago, la sección bilingüe del Sun-Times.
la-voz-cover-photo-2.png

Since 2019, state law has required the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and all law enforcement agencies to make a decision within 90 business days on whether undocumented immigrant applicants who have been victims of certain crimes and are applying for a type of permanent visa called a “U visa” are eligible.

That visa program was set up to help law enforcement gain the trust of undocumented immigrants who might otherwise be reluctant to come forward.

But records show that DCFS so far has taken more than four years to establish a process to review the applications, potentially denying hundreds of families a chance at legal immigration status and keeping others from even trying.

“They are defying state law, and it’s really frustrating,” said Sara Dady, a Rockford immigration lawyer who filed a U visa certification request this year on behalf of a client.

“So I have to tell my client that, under the law, we should get a response within 90 business days, but this particular government agency has decided that they’re just not capable of following the law,” Dady said.

Marc Smith, the director of DCFS, wouldn’t agree to an interview, and his office didn’t respond to questions about why it hasn’t developed a policy on U visa certification requests.

Marc Smith, director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

Marc Smith, director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times file

In December, Injustice Watch reported that the Chicago Police Department routinely denied hundreds of U visa certification requests, often without justification. That report prompted Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s civil rights division to open an investigation of the police department. Raoul’s office says it’s now also “looking into” DCFS’s handling of U visa certification requests.

Interviews with immigration lawyers and clients and DCFS emails and correspondence show undocumented immigrants who applied for the certifications were told their applications weren’t being considered.

One case involves a 37-year old who was sexually abused by her grandfather for years when she was a preteen. She reported the abuse to a school social worker, who notified DCFS, which, records show, investigated and substantiated her accusations.

The agency referred the case to the police, but her grandfather later was convicted in a separate abuse case in which she had no involvement — meaning DCFS was the only law enforcement agency able to certify her U visa application.

Attorney Carlos Becerra, who sent DCFS a woman’s request in November for a U visa certification and was told: “We are currently developing a U Visa Policy for DCFS; therefore, we are unable to confirm the information you provided nor are we able to provide a signed certification at this time.” After he pressed, he was told. “The best I can say is that we are hopeful to have it up and running in 2023.”

Attorney Carlos Becerra, who sent DCFS a woman’s request in November for a U visa certification and was told: “We are currently developing a U Visa Policy for DCFS; therefore, we are unable to confirm the information you provided nor are we able to provide a signed certification at this time.” After he pressed, he was told. “The best I can say is that we are hopeful to have it up and running in 2023.”

Provided

Carlos Becerra, her lawyer, sent DCFS her certification request in November. Three days later, Rodrigo Remolina, who identified himself as a member of the “DCFS U Visa Unit,” wrote back: “We are currently developing a U Visa Policy for DCFS; therefore, we are unable to confirm the information you provided nor are we able to provide a signed certification at this time.”

“Can you tell me approximately how long it will take to develop the policy?” Becerra asked.

“Unfortunately I don’t have a date but I can tell you we are working on it diligently,” Remolina said in late November. “The best I can say is that we are hopeful to have it up and running in 2023.”

In mid-January, Remolina wrote to Dady’s office in emails in another case: “Although we already have a dedicated email for U-Visa, we do not yet have any policy or even an established process to certify U-Visa requests. We are working on it and hope to have this service up and running in the next few months.

“Please check back with us later this summer.”

Becerra filed suit against DCFS on behalf of the 37-year-old Chicago woman in Cook County circuit court on Feb. 15, accusing DCFS of violating provisions of the VOICES Act, the 2019 law requiring a swift process to consider U Visa certifications.

“This is my last shot at legal status,” the woman said in an interview. “I don’t want the system to fail me again.”

Most U visa certifications go through police and other agencies, according to federal data. But it’s common for child protective services to be the only agency involved in a case, said Danielle Kalil, a University of Michigan law professor.

A spokesperson for DCFS said the agency had received just seven U visa certification requests since the VOICES Act took effect in January 2019 and certified one. DCFS officials would not discuss that case.

In New York City, where about the same number of undocumented immigrants live as do in Illinois, child protective services have issued more than 234 U visa certifications since 2019, records show.

Kalil said the VOICES Act mirrors legislation in California and New York requiring state law enforcement agencies to quickly handle U visa certifications. The laws give child welfare agencies discretion to decide whether to certify U visas, but “you don’t get to decide not to review it at all,” she said.

The longer DCFS takes to comply with the VOICES Act, the longer potential applicants will have to wait in line for a U visa, Kalil said.

The federal government awards no more than 10,000 U visas a year, and the applicant backlog topped 188,000 as of September. That means it could take more than a decade for someone who applied for the visa this year to get it, Kalil said.

Sarah Diaz, co-author of the VOICES Act, who is associate director of Loyola University Chicago’s Center for the Human Rights of Children.

Sarah Diaz, co-author of the VOICES Act, who is associate director of Loyola University Chicago’s Center for the Human Rights of Children.

Loyola University Chicago

By preventing undocumented victims from applying for the U visa, DCFS could be keeping others from even coming forward, said Sarah Diaz, co-author of the VOICES Act, who is associate director of the Center for the Human Rights of Children at Loyola University Chicago.

“It makes children and their families remain in the shadows,” Diaz said.

Carlos Ballesteros reports for Injustice Watch, a nonpartisan, not-for-profit journalism organization.

Carlos Ballesteros reports for Injustice Watch, a nonpartisan, not-for-profit journalism organization.

The Latest
A dedicated servant to the team, the Fire are winless in six matches and it’s bothering Klopas that he cannot find a fix.
The nonprofit wants to open a fourth school that would double as a venue with a bar, in a “significant step forward” as it also looks to offer an affordable performance space for artists.
A tutorial on photographing sunspots, a report on a coyote at Palmisano Park and a favor request from a tug engineer are among the notes from around Chicago outdoors and beyond.
It won’t be easy for the Bulls and executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas to get off of LaVine’s max contract deal with a trade this offseason, but it won’t be from a lack of trying.
Despite the team’s poor record, Connor Bedard’s popularity and the team’s ticket-sales strategies have kept fans coming to the United Center. The Hawks ranked fourth in the NHL with 18,836 fans per game and have a season-ticket renewal rate of 96% this spring.