Promised City Hall hearings on U visa failures never happened

Injustice Watch revealed in December how Chicago police denied hundreds of U visa certifications from undocumented crime victims. More than half of the city council called for accountability and new transparency rules, but the measures never passed.

Six months after the Chicago City Council promised new rules and swift accountability after Injustice Watch reported how the Chicago Police Department improperly blocked undocumented crime victims from obtaining legal status, the council has yet to act.

The high-profile public promises came in December after Injustice Watch showed that police routinely denied qualified applicants for U visas, a form of legal status designed to win the cooperation of undocumented crime victims.

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The first step in the U visa process requires applicants to get a certification from the law enforcement agency that investigated their cases, attesting to their status as a qualifying crime victim and their cooperation in the investigation.

Injustice Watch revealed in December how CPD denied certifying hundreds of U visa applicants last year, even though some of them met all the criteria to qualify for the visa, records show. Injustice Watch also found CPD denied certifying a higher share of U visa applications than police in New York, Los Angeles, and Houston.

Within days, Ald. Raymond Lopez, 15th Ward, introduced two resolutions, one requiring CPD to keep better records and be more transparent about the program and the other to bring CPD brass to testify on the issue before the council’s immigration and refugee rights and public safety committees.

Both measures were co-sponsored by more than 30 council members — and both died unceremoniously without ever coming to a vote.

A new city council, sworn in last month after the February municipal elections, would have to reintroduce the measures, said Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th Ward, who replaced retired Ald. Ariel Reboyras as chair of the immigration committee. Under Reboyras, the committee didn’t meet for over a year, Block Club Chicago reported in May.

Vasquez said he’s interested in reviving Lopez’s resolutions, but he said the U visa issue isn’t on the agenda for the committee’s meeting later this month. Instead, that meeting will focus on language-access issues at ward offices and issues related to housing the thousands of asylum-seekers recently bused into the city from the border, Vasquez said.

Trisha Teofilo Olave, legal project manager at the National Immigrant Justice Center who trains CPD on U visas, said it makes sense for the committee to prioritize more pressing issues, as the number of certification denials from CPD has decreased since Injustice Watch’s article, she said.

But Olave would still like the council to call up CPD leadership to answer questions about the department’s wrongdoing and lack of transparency.

CPD doesn’t have a website dedicated to explaining the U visa process — unlike other local law enforcement agencies, including the Cook County sheriff — or how the hundreds of applicants who were denied certifications last year can appeal, Olave said.

“This information is nowhere easily found by crime victims,” she said.

Olave said CPD brass should also explain how they choose which officers can certify U visa applications. Most of the denials reviewed by Injustice Watch were signed by two sergeants — Brandon Ternand and John Poulos — with histories of misconduct. Both were up for termination in 2018, but the police board allowed them to keep their jobs.

As of June, Ternand and Poulos were still listed as U visa-certifying officers.

Neither CPD interim Superintendent Fred Waller nor Joseph Perfetti, CPD’s director of its record inquiry section, which handles all U visa certification requests, responded to interview requests. Mayor Brandon Johnson declined an interview request; through a spokesperson, Johnson said he’s “fully committed to fulfilling the promise that Chicago is a sanctuary city and to treating immigrants and refugees with dignity and respect.”

State attorney general’s investigation ‘ongoing’

The failed efforts at the city council came amid a flurry of activity following publication of the Injustice Watch investigation in December.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul quickly opened his own probe, demanding CPD to provide his office with internal records and urging police officials to find everyone who was denied under the program and allow them to reapply.

CPD General Counsel Dana O’Malley responded by disparaging Injustice Watch’s article as “a story posted on the internet” and promising the department would fix a wrongfully denied certification if it “discovers a certification request that should have been issued.”

But O’Malley didn’t say CPD would proactively reach out to the more than 600 applicants denied U visa certifications between August 2021 and March 2023, according to data CPD provided to Raoul’s office.

By not reaching out to all the denied applicants — some of which likely don’t have attorneys — Olave said CPD is “putting the onus” on crime victims to fix the department’s wrongdoings.

Questions to CPD about its failure to reach out to all denied applicants went unanswered.

A spokesperson for Raoul’s office said the investigation is ongoing.

CPD policy change, plus new certifying agencies 

After the Injustice Watch investigation, CPD updated some of its internal policies U visa certifications, and City Hall opened new avenues for undocumented crime victims to apply for a visa.

Under its new policy, CPD allows applicants to appeal a denial for U visa certification, so a different officer reviews the case than the one initially denied it. Under the new rules, CPD’s legal affairs team also reviews denials before they’re sent out.

CPD’s new policy took effect May 12. That same day, former Mayor Lori Lightfoot issued an executive order directing three agencies — the Department of Administrative Hearings, the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, and the Civilian Office of Police Accountability — to start signing U visa certifications.

The agencies investigate U visa-qualifying crimes, such as peonage, extortion, and witness tampering. “Expanding access to the U visa could benefit the city in multiple ways, including by empowering residents to file good-faith criminal reports or civil complaints while increasing forms of legal relief outside of the criminal justice system,” Lightfoot said in a statement.

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