Alderpeople call for hearings on Chicago police U visa certification program following Injustice Watch investigation

Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times via AP

Mayor Lori Lightfoot presides over a Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall, Wednesday, July 21, 2021.

A majority of the Chicago City Council called Wednesday for hearings on the Chicago Police Department’s handling of U visa certification requests from undocumented crime victims, following an Injustice Watch investigation into the department’s handling of those requests.

Southwest Side Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th Ward) introduced a resolution calling for joint hearings with the council’s public safety and immigrant and refugee rights committees after Injustice Watch’s reporting found that Chicago police denied U visa certifications at a significantly higher rate than police in New York City and Los Angeles.

The resolution, which garnered 39 co-sponsors from the 50-person city council, calls for representatives from CPD and the city’s law department to testify about the city’s procedures for reviewing U visa certification requests and “the ability of the department to genuinely assist those most vulnerable needing our assistance in accessing a federal certification.”

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A U visa offers temporary legal status and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who were victims of certain crimes and who are considered to be helpful or likely to be helpful to law enforcement. But before an undocumented crime victim can apply for the visa, they first must get certified by a law enforcement agency.

Injustice Watch found in its investigation that CPD doesn’t keep data on the number of U visa certification requests that it receives, but department officials said CPD has denied “at least 800” in the last two years.

Lopez also introduced an order Wednesday that would require CPD to make the U visa certification process more transparent, “including the keeping of records, submissions, approvals, and rejections,” and to provide semiannual updates to the city council. The order received 31 co-sponsors.

Lopez said he was compelled to introduce the two measures to ensure that immigrants who are victims of crime feel comfortable coming forward to the police.

“I have seen time and again where my own residents have been victimized and don’t necessarily want to call the police or feel that the police are going to do what’s in their best interest,” he told Injustice Watch. “Unfortunately, this is a scenario that has proven their fears. So we need to address that and correct it.”

Both measures were referred to the public safety and immigrant and refugee rights committees during Wednesday’s city council meeting.

Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th Ward), who chairs the public safety committee, co-sponsored the resolution calling for hearings and the order, but Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30th Ward), who chairs the immigrant and refugee rights committee, did not. Taliaferro told Injustice Watch that it’s unlikely that the committees could have a hearing or a vote on the order before the next city council meeting in mid-January. Reboyras could not be reached for comment.

Two Chicago police sergeants with troubled backgrounds issued most of the U visa certification denials reviewed by Injustice Watch, many of them at odds with federal and state laws. The two sergeants — Brandon Ternand and John Poulos — faced firing from CPD in 2018 after they fatally shot civilians, and investigators raised questions about their credibility. The Chicago Police Board allowed them to keep their jobs.

A CPD spokesperson confirmed Wednesday that Ternand and Poulos were “active and assigned to the Records Inquiry Section,” which is the unit responsible for reviewing U visa certification requests. CPD did not respond to a request for comment on Lopez’s resolution and order. A spokesperson for Mayor Lori Lightfoot also did not respond to a request for comment.

Lopez said he was concerned that Ternand and Poulos are responsible for reviewing U visa requests from undocumented crime victims.

“What I find most disturbing is that there are many units like this that have just become a dumping ground for officers who need a desk job,” Lopez said. “They should be aware and know that the role that they’re playing is very significant to individuals seeking relief.”

In November, following months of complaints from attorneys and questions from Injustice Watch, sources said CPD began the process of updating its U visa certification policies. One of the most consequential changes is that all denials will now first go through CPD’s Office of Legal Affairs. CPD spokespeople wouldn’t confirm the policy change to Injustice Watch.

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