Updated Dec. 15, following a Chicago City Council meeting. Leer en español.
After his brakes started acting up on I-94 one night last November, tractor-trailer driver Nodirjon Zakirjonov decided to pull over to the side of the road in the Pullman neighborhood to fix the problem. But in the middle of his repairs, the 30-year-old was suddenly struck on the head and knocked unconscious. When he came to, he felt his abdomen “burning.” He’d been stabbed and robbed.
The assault left the immigrant from Uzbekistan with a 10-inch scar across his torso and deeper trauma. For months, he struggled to drive long distances, and any slight mishap on the road triggered a panic attack.
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“I was living in a horror film,” he said in a recent interview.
Zakirjonov found it hard to talk about the assault, but eventually he confided in his friends, and one of them suggested that he apply for a U visa.
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. Congress created the visa program in 2000 to encourage undocumented immigrants to report crimes and help law enforcement better serve immigrant communities.
Zakirjonov immigrated to Chicago on a student visa, but lost his legal status after graduating from Concordia University Chicago with an MBA in 2020. A few months after the assault, Zakirjonov contacted an immigration attorney to apply for a U visa. But before he could submit his application, he needed the Chicago Police Department to certify that he was indeed a qualified crime victim who had cooperated in their investigation. His lawyer, Julia Sverdloff, mailed his certification request to CPD in April. She was confident he’d get certified.
But what should have been a straight-forward process turned into a monthslong nightmare.
First, police officials said he needed to prove his identity. Then they told him that a detective had tried to reach him to no avail. After Zakirjonov sent a sworn affidavit promising to help investigators, CPD denied him a third time, telling him that he needed to call detectives and ask them to reopen his case. An open investigation isn’t a requirement for police to sign a U visa certification, but Zakirjonov did as he was told. He met with detectives in August, and they reopened his case. But CPD denied him again the next month, saying he didn’t have “credible and reliable information” about the crime.
“When I was informed in a straightforward way that CPD is not believing me, I said, ‘That’s all.’ That was the last shot,” he said.
An Injustice Watch investigation found that the department has denied hundreds of U visa certification requests from undocumented crime victims this year, many of them at odds with federal certification standards and some that appeared to violate state law.
Two Chicago police sergeants, Brandon Ternand and John Poulos, issued most of the denials reviewed by Injustice Watch. Both sergeants have fatally shot civilians and had serious questions raised by investigators about their credibility. Both also faced termination, but in 2018 the Chicago Police Board allowed them to keep their jobs. The city has paid out more than $3 million in settlements and judgments relating to the two sergeants.
Police watchdogs said the decision to designate Ternand and Poulos as U visa certifiers raises questions about CPD’s selection process for the job.
“To the extent that the police department has any interest in building its legitimacy or establishing public trust, you don’t put people who violated the most fundamental tenets of public trust and CPD rules … in positions in which their credibility (and) integrity matters,” said Craig Futterman, director of the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project at the University of Chicago. “I can’t imagine anything more basic than that.”
Attorneys and legal advocates who regularly work on U visa applications called the number of denials by CPD in the last year “unprecedented” and said they worried it will discourage Chicago’s undocumented immigrants from reporting crimes.
“All it takes is one person that you know who had a negative encounter with law enforcement to affect your willingness to come forward in assisting in an investigation or prosecution of a crime,” said Trisha Teofilo Olave, a legal project manager at the Chicago-based National Immigrant Justice Center, which represents dozens of U visa applicants.
Last month, after Injustice Watch started reporting this story and following weeks of complaints from immigration attorneys to officials in Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office, sources said that CPD said it would revise its policies on U visa certifications. The most significant change will require the department’s Office of Legal Affairs to review all denials as well as handle appeals of previously denied requests.
CPD did not answer any questions raised by Injustice Watch and did not respond to interview requests for Ternand and Poulos. Instead, the department issued a brief written statement in which it vowed to “continue working to ensure the U visa certification process is in accordance with the federal guidelines.”
At a City Council meeting in mid-December, after Injustice Watch published this story, a majority of alderpeople signed on to two measures calling for hearings on CPD’s handling of U visa certifications and for the department to collect better data and make its U visa certification process more transparent. The measures were referred to the council’s public safety and immigrant rights committees, which will likely take them up early next year.
Certifying officers ‘don’t understand the law’
Unlike many other law enforcement agencies, CPD said it doesn’t keep data on the number of U visa certification requests it receives or how many it denies. But in response to a public records request, department officials told Injustice Watch in October that CPD has denied “at least 800” U visa certifications in the last two years alone.
By comparison, in 2021, police in Los Angeles denied fewer than 350 certification requests and police in New York denied about 150 requests, according to data from those departments. Each of those two cities is home to at least 150,000 more undocumented immigrants than Chicago, recent estimates from each city show.
At Injustice Watch’s request, Chicago police reviewed a batch of recently closed certification cases — 110 in all — and determined that 57 of those requests had been denied, a denial rate of nearly 52%. That would put Chicago well above other major cities — including New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Minneapolis, and San Francisco — in the percentage of requests denied, according to 2021 data from those departments.
The U visa program was created as part of larger legislation aimed at curbing human trafficking and violence against women. But many of the certifications denied by CPD have been for victims of the very crimes that qualify under the law — including domestic violence and sexual assault.
Leslye Orloff, an expert in U visas and director of the National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project at American University, reviewed the denials for Injustice Watch and found that many of those decisions ran contrary to federal certification guidelines.
Poulos and Ternand collectively signed more than three-quarters of the denial letters that CPD provided to Injustice Watch.
Orloff, who helped write the law that created the U visa and trains police departments nationwide on its implementation, concluded that the sergeants “don’t understand the law” — and called into question CPD’s monitoring of their work. “The fact that (the denials) are going out the door means that their supervising structure isn’t checking to see if they’re getting it right,” she said.
Despite the complaints from immigration attorneys, Ternand and Poulos remained U visa certifying officers as of mid-December, a CPD spokesperson confirmed.
Before certifying U visas, Poulos and Ternand faced termination
The Chicago Police Department did not respond to questions about why Poulos and Ternand were assigned to Unit 163, the Records Inquiry Section that reviews U visa certification requests, following failed attempts to fire them.
Poulos, who is white, shot and killed two Black men in separate incidents in just over three years. In an off-duty incident in August 2013, Poulos said Rickey Rozelle, 28, threatened to kill him before Poulos shot him. Records show that investigators didn’t recover a weapon. The city later settled with Rozelle’s family for $950,000. While on-duty in November 2016, authorities said Poulos fatally shot 19-year-old Kajuan Raye in the back during a foot chase. Oversight agencies cleared Poulos of wrongdoing in both shootings, but a jury awarded Raye’s family $1 million in a civil suit. Poulos claimed Raye pointed a gun at him, but forensics experts hired by both sides said in court filings that a gun in Raye’s possession was tucked away in his jacket pocket when Poulos shot him.
After Raye’s death, then-police Superintendent Eddie Johnson filed charges to fire Poulos. But the charges had nothing to do with the shootings. Instead, they stemmed from two internal investigations from years earlier that found Poulos had concealed a past arrest when he applied to be an officer and had an ownership stake in his family’s sports bar once he got the job, a violation of CPD policy. Internal Affairs had recommended that Poulos be fired for those infractions in 2007, but police brass never followed through. By the time Johnson filed charges with the Police Board in 2017, Poulos had received a “merit promotion” to sergeant, according to the Chicago Tribune.
In its 2017 report on CPD’s systemic failures in the wake of Laquan McDonald’s fatal shooting, the Justice Department singled out Poulos’ case for comment, saying CPD could have stopped his promotion — and potentially stopped him from killing Raye — if the department had a “functioning early intervention” system to alert officials of problem officers.
But in February 2018, the Police Board — chaired then by Lightfoot — unanimously ruled against firing Poulos, concluding that CPD took too long to bring the charges against him. Records show that Johnson designated Poulos as a U visa certifying officer in September 2018.
A few weeks later, the Police Board cleared Ternand of any wrongdoing in his fatal shooting of high school freshman Dakota Bright. During a foot chase in November 2012, Ternand, who is white, fired a single shot, hitting Bright in the back of the head. The officer said he saw the Black 15-year-old reach for a gun. But Bright was unarmed when Ternand shot him; police later recovered a gun 200 feet away from Bright’s body, WBEZ reported. The city’s police oversight agency ruled the shooting unjustified in 2017 after finding many “inconsistencies” in Ternand’s account.
However, in a 5-3 ruling that kept Ternand on the force, the Police Board said that his testimony was “credible and persuasive” and praised Ternand as a “highly decorated” officer who had a “reputation for honesty.”
That was despite the more than two dozen misconduct complaints Ternand had racked up in the years before and after killing Bright, including allegations that Ternand had lied in police reports about using excessive force. In one case, Cook County prosecutors declined to bring charges against a man whom Ternand said hit him after a CPD detective found bystander footage of the incident that contradicted Ternand’s police report, according to a civil lawsuit the man later filed.
Like most misconduct complaints against Chicago police officers, none of those complaints against Ternand were sustained. In all, Ternand was named in five lawsuits that cost Chicago taxpayers more than $1 million in settlements between 2011 and 2016, according to records collected by the Chicago Reporter.
After the Police Board saved his job, Ternand was transferred to the 11th District on the West Side. Ternand was assigned to Unit 163 in January, and Superintendent David Brown designated him as a U visa certifying officer a month later.
Poulos and Ternand did not respond to a request for comment.
Former Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson, who oversaw investigations of police policies and practices, told Injustice Watch that if CPD is going to keep Ternand and Poulos on the force, “they certainly should not be put into a position that involves their certification of official matters, for which their veracity and their credibility is critical.”
‘Looking for excuses to deny’ U visas
Not long after Ternand joined the U visa unit, some attorneys started noticing an uptick in denials of certification requests.
“Starting in April, we started noticing this trend where they were getting denied for no reason,” Shelby Vcelka, an immigration attorney with Victory Law Office in Berwyn, told Injustice Watch.
One of those denials was for Reyna Mariano, a 40-year-old undocumented mother from Mexico whose teenage son was shot and killed in 2017. Under federal law, parents and other immediate family members of deceased minor victims of qualifying crimes can apply for a U visa as an “indirect victim.”
Mariano told Injustice Watch that at first she didn’t want to apply for a U visa because she felt guilty about “getting something out of” her son’s death. She decided to apply for the visa earlier this year because she believed obtaining legal status and a work permit would help her provide for her 4-year-old daughter.
But Ternand denied her U visa certification request, saying without explanation that she didn’t qualify as an indirect victim. Vcelka appealed the denial, but Poulos denied her request again on the same grounds. Mariano was later granted certification from the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, which prosecuted her son’s killing.
CPD also denied at least a dozen requests from domestic violence survivors this year, the Injustice Watch investigation found.
In one of those cases, a 43-year-old woman on the South Side who had obtained an order of protection against her former partner called police after he threw her “onto the ground multiple times” according to a police report. Ternand denied her certification, saying she hadn’t suffered “substantial physical harm.” In another example, Ternand denied a request from a 23-year-old woman who told police she locked herself in her room as her knife-wielding father tried to open the door while shouting threats to kill her. Again, Ternand said the woman hadn’t suffered substantial harm.
But federal certification guidelines issued by the Department of Homeland Security say that it’s up to immigration officials — not local law enforcement — to determine if U visa applicants have suffered enough harm to qualify for the visa.
“The fact that they’re denying based on substantial harm is totally wrong,” Orloff said. “Denying based on substantial harm to me says that they’re looking for excuses to deny that the law doesn’t require.”
Poulos also denied at least six certification requests because, he said, the crimes listed on the police report — “simple assault-domestic” and “simple battery-domestic” — weren’t qualifying crimes.
“That’s wrong — ‘Simple assault – domestic related’ is domestic violence,” Orloff said. “Each of these officers are doing things that are dead wrong on the law.”
Immigration attorneys said it makes sense for CPD to deny some of the hundreds of U visa certification requests it receives every year.
“It shouldn’t be a rubber stamp. Not everyone should get a certification,” said attorney Carlos Becerra. “But I think the other extreme is denying certifications and having either a very flimsy basis for doing it or having no basis.”
Becerra sued CPD last month after Ternand denied a U visa certification for one of his clients, a rideshare driver who was attacked by a passenger, leaving him with a broken nose, according to the lawsuit. Ternand denied the man twice for allegedly failing to cooperate in the investigation, even though he “provided evidence that the case had (been) reopened,” the lawsuit says.
In 2017, a report by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights found that law enforcement agencies across the state had inconsistent policies on U visa certification that often conflicted with federal guidelines.
The following year, the Illinois General Assembly passed the VOICES Act, which set statewide guidelines on U visa certifications. The law requires law enforcement agencies to recertify U visa applicants whose initial certification had expired. Under federal law, the certifications expire after six months, but immigrants and their lawyers often need more time than that to file their U visa applications.
CPD, however, denied several recertification requests this year, including one for a woman who was sexually assaulted as a minor, according to attorneys and records reviewed by Injustice Watch.
In 2021, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed additional legislation requiring law enforcement agencies statewide to report the number of U visa certification requests they’ve received and approved or denied each year. The first of those reports is due in March. The Justice Department’s Office of Violence Against Women awarded a nearly $1 million grant to CPD in October 2020 in part to fund a U visa data dashboard. In an email, a CPD spokesperson said the dashboard “has not yet been created.” The department declined to say whether it would be able to meet the new reporting requirements.
Attorneys ask the mayor’s office for help
In late August, Olave, the legal project manager at the National Immigrant Justice Center, led a training session for Ternand, Poulos, and other CPD U visa certifying officers. Attorneys hoped that the training would stem the flow of flawed denials, according to emails obtained through a public records request. They were wrong.
“A lot of practitioners were waiting until the certifier training on 8/25 in the hopes that things would get better,” Olave wrote in an email to Darci Flynn, Lightfoot’s director of gender-based violence strategy and policy, on Sept. 13. “Unfortunately, it seems they have only gotten worse.”
Flynn forwarded the email to Elena Gottreich, Lightfoot’s deputy mayor of public safety, who sent it to CPD chief of staff Leslie Silletti and Tina Skahill, the department’s executive director of constitutional policing and reform. “This has been an issue for years, we need to address asap,” Gottreich wrote.
But the denials kept coming, the emails show. Attorneys began “advising clients to not apply for immigration relief based on a belief of an eventual denial from CPD,” according to an Oct. 4 email to top CPD officials from Nubia Willman, the mayor’s chief community engagement officer and an immigration attorney with years of experience working on U visa applications.
The next day, Willman and other senior members of the administration met with CPD officials, including Skahill and general counsel Dana O’Malley, the emails show. Neither the mayor’s office nor CPD answered Injustice Watch’s questions about what happened at the meeting.
But in a follow-up email to the meeting participants, Willman wrote, “For years, CPD has set best practices throughout the state for being responsive and trauma-informed towards survivors of crimes. I’m hopeful that this check-in will allow us to return to those processes.”
Still, the questionable denials kept coming, attorneys said. In an email sent to Willman on Oct. 19, an immigration attorney wrote, “We received a second denial after I appealed the U cert(ification) denial to CPD — it’s very generic and does not even indicate that CPD reviewed my arguments.”
“Disheartening to see,” Willman wrote back. “We’re following up on these so feel free to send my way as we meet with CPD to discuss further. Hopefully we’ll have an update soon.”
By mid-November, sources told Injustice Watch, CPD started requiring that all denials would now go through its legal department before being finalized. The legal department also will review all appeals for denials already issued.
But Olave worries that some immigrants who were improperly denied a U visa certification request may not know that they can appeal the decision.
“There are definitely people out there who have gotten a denial over the past year who may just give up,” she said.
CPD did not respond to Injustice Watch’s questions about the policy changes.
The mayor’s office declined a request for an interview with Willman and Flynn. In a statement, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office said that when “concerns were raised to her office about U visa certification denials, the mayor ordered a review of the application process. The city will continue to work with advocates and the Chicago Police Department to provide any necessary adjustments to the policy or training to ensure appropriate access to this legal remedy and to ensure that we are living our values as a welcoming city in all ways.”
The long line ahead for U visa applicants
After receiving four denial letters, Zakirjonov, the truck driver who was stabbed last year, didn’t think he’d ever get a U visa certification from CPD.
Then late last month, three weeks after Injustice Watch asked CPD about his case, his lawyer received an unexpected letter from CPD. A year after being stabbed and robbed, Zakirjonov finally was certified for a U visa by CPD — even though he never appealed the fourth denial letter he received in September.
Zakirjonov had already given up hope that CPD would do right by him, he said, and had turned his attention to taking care of his pregnant wife and their two kids, ages 7 and 4. “To be honest, 99% of my focus and thinking was just to feed my family and live my life,” he said.
While he can finally apply for a U visa with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, CPD’s six-month delay puts him farther back in a line that is getting longer by the day.
By law, federal immigration officials can only give out 10,000 U visas to crime victims each year. USCIS said it has more than 180,000 pending cases, double the number in 2016. Between October 2021 and June 2022, the number of pending cases grew by more than 9,000, or about 34 a day.
“So an extra six months waiting to get your certification signed means potentially an extra few years waiting to get your case adjudicated,” Olave said.
The U visa grants legal status and a work permit for up to four years. To stay in the country for longer, immigrants must seek a green card. Three years after obtaining a U visa, recipients can apply for a green card, which currently takes another year or two to process.
One of Olave’s clients obtained her U visa last month after submitting her application more than six years ago. “We’re looking at her applying for a green card in November 2025,” Olave said. “Hopefully processing times don’t get longer, but it could be 2027 by the time she finally gets her green card. That’s over 10 years since she applied for the U visa.”
Zakirjonov doesn’t know if he can wait that long, but he knows that’s all he can do at this point. “It’s draining, thinking about it every time,” he said. “So I’m just gonna let it go, and at some point, it’s gonna be yes or no.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Trisha Teofilo Olave as an attorney. She is a legal project manager and DOJ accredited representative.