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Nov 30, 2019

Building a wall out of red tape

Co-produced with PRX Logo

While a debate has raged over the U.S.-Mexico border wall, less attention has been paid to the invisible barriers affecting tens of thousands of immigrants seeking U.S. visas and citizenship.

Every year, 80,000 immigrants rely on H-1B visas to work legally in the U.S., and in many ways, they seem to embody the kind of highly skilled immigrants President Donald Trump says he wants. Yet H-1B denials are surging under his administration. Mother Jones reporter Sinduja Rangarajan investigates what’s behind the trend and whether people are being denied for legitimate reasons.

Next, Reveal’s Laura C. Morel tells the story of a visa that’s as much for immigrants as it is for police. Congress created the U visa to build trust between law enforcement and undocumented immigrants who become victims of violent crime. The visa is meant to help police put criminals behind bars, but many agencies aren’t using it the way it was intended.

In our final story, reporter Monica Campbell with the public radio show “The World” travels to a citizenship ceremony to report on how the process of becoming a U.S. citizen is becoming more difficult and potentially a whole lot more expensive.

Dig Deeper

  • Read: Our reporting on immigration
  • Read: The Trump Administration Is Denying H-1B Visas at a Dizzying Rate, But It’s Hit a Snag
  • Watch: When a child is taken from a parent
  • Hear: When they took my son

Credits

This week’s show was edited by Brett Myers.

Our story about U visas was reported by Laura C. Morel and produced by Ashley Cleek. 

Our story about H-1B visas was reported by Sinduja Rangarajan at Mother Jones and produced by Teresa Cotsirilos. Monica Campbell from “The World” reported and produced our story about citizenship. 

Our production manager is Mwende Hinojosa. Original score and sound design by Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda, who had help from Amy Mostafa. Our host is Al Letson.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Found, the Heising-Simons Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
Al Letson: Hey, hey, hey. Before we get started, today's show is coming at you just ahead of Thanksgiving and it's a really good one. Investigating it has taken us the better part of the year. I mean, we've flown all over the country, uncovered data no one has reported on before, and it's all about a company that most Americans know very well, one that promises boxes at your doorstep in two days or less. But that promise, it has huge repercussions. You'll see, we got the receipts to back it up.

 

Al Letson: Now, I know you've heard me say this before, but this kind of investigative journalism, it takes time and costs money. The best way to support our work is by becoming a member. It's easy, just text the word Reveal to 474747. I'm supposed to tell you that standard data rates apply and you can text stop or cancel at anytime, but you know that, don't you?

 

Al Letson: Also, back by popular demand, all the new members who donate at least $5.00 a month will get our FACTS T-shirt. We really cannot do this work without your help. That is a fact, which is why you get one of our fantastic FACTS T-shirts. All you have to do is support the show you love and text the word Reveal to 474747. All right, got it? Let's get to the show.

 

Al Letson: From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

Al Letson: For the past eight months, data reporter, Sinduja Rangarajan has been reporting on an issue that affects thousands of people, including her own family.

 

Sinduja: Vinod, has she slept?

 

Vinod: Yeah.

 

Sinduja: After my husband, Vinod and I put our daughter to sleep, we've gotten into this routine. Okay, let's go down and are you ready?

 

Vinod: Okay.

 

Sinduja: We go down to our drawing room, open up our laptops...

 

Vinod: [foreign language hh:mm:ss 00:02:07].

 

Sinduja: Okay, and get to work because we've been trying to immigrate to Canada.

 

Vinod: Express entry, okay, let's see.

 

Sinduja: We have a job after our daughter goes to sleep, which is just immigration paperwork.

 

Al Letson: Sinduja, I got to say, I was really surprised the first time you told me you were thinking about leaving the US. I've known you for years. The two of us used to work together here at Reveal. Now, you're a reporter at Mother Jones. You have a great career and it just seems like, well, it seems like you built a life in this country.

 

Sinduja: I have, and so has my husband Vinod. We are originally from India, but we've lived here in the US for years. Our daughter was born here. Vinod also has a great job here. He's an executive at a tech company. But, our future still feels really unstable and our immigration status is tied to our jobs and Vinod is on this work visa called H1B.

 

Al Letson: In basic terms, what's an H1B?

 

Sinduja: Well, Al, they're for pretty high-skilled people. Lots of computer programmers are on them. Employers apply on your behalf and you need to have a minimum of a bachelor's degree. These visas are really popular among Indian immigrants. Around 70% people on H1Bs are India and these visas are temporary, but they get renewed a lot.

 

Al Letson: You say a lot, I mean, how much is that?

 

Sinduja: Two thirds of H1Bs approved in the last fiscal year were actually renewals. Vinod's been on H1Bs for years without any problems, but when he was getting ready to renew his visa this year, a lawyer told us there is a chance it could get denied.

 

Vinod: They're asking [inaudible] for the renewal earlier than usual.

 

Sinduja: Under the Trump Administration, there has been this surge in the number of H1B visas that are getting denied. Like in 2015, when Obama was in office, only 4% of these visas were denied. This year, that figure quadrupled. 16% of applicants are getting turned down and this really fascinates me because H1Bs are one of the most popular visas in the US and all kinds of white collar workers use them.

 

Donald Trump: Companies are moving offices to other countries because our immigration rules prevent them from retaining highly skilled and even, if I might, totally brilliant people. We discriminate against genius. We discriminate against brilliance. We won't anymore.

 

Sinduja: That's Trump earlier this year discussing what he calls, merit-based immigration. Basically, he wants elite immigrants with lots of skills. But, his administration is cracking down on the visa a lot of those people need to immigrate here. So, I wanted to know whose visas are getting denied, why are the getting denied, and are all of these denials even legitimate? That's what I wanted to find out.

 

Al Letson: We've been going deep on immigration for more than a year now. We've investigated the Trump Administration's zero-tolerance policy and family separation. We broke stories about how military contractors house kids in abandoned office buildings after they were separated from their parents.

 

Al Letson: On today's show though, we're going to take a different look at immigration. Instead of focusing on our southern border, we're going to investigate visas and citizenship, legal immigration processes that we'll show are no longer working the way they're supposed to.

 

Sinduja: You know, Al, a lot of these immigrants feel like they've followed the rules and done everything right. There is a guy I met who is a really good example of this. We're calling him, Samir. Hello.

 

Samir: Hi.

 

Teresa: Hi.

 

Samir: How are you? Come on in.

 

Sinduja: Samir is not his real name. He's afraid his immigration status might be affected if he speaks out publicly. My producer, Teresa and I went to meet him at his apartment in suburban Dallas. He lives there with his wife and his five year old son, who by the way was very cutely obsessed with our recorder.

 

Samir's son: [inaudible 00:06:15].

 

Teresa: I know, it's cool, right. How old are you?

 

Samir's son: Beep, beep.

 

Sinduja: Samir moved to the United States in 2006. He came here for grad school. He got a master's in environmental engineering. And then, he landed a job at this Fortune 600 health insurance company, which is a household name, United Health Care. One of his jobs was to streamline the way the company processed claims.

 

Samir: Our claims process, if you had a medical claim, it used to take almost three to four months to get it cleared. And then, we've dropped down that time to almost a month and a half. But, there were times I'd work like 70, 80 hours a week because we want people to get cured. They need to get the treatment. I put my soul in there.

 

Sinduja: And you received an H1B visa?

 

Samir: My whole life was with United Healthcare.

 

Sinduja: He was doing really well at his job and he also started falling in love with this country.

 

Samir: I never used to celebrate Christmas back home in India, but I did go to church here for the first time just to see how they celebrate. This country is built on immigrants, right, and I wanted to feel that.

 

Sinduja: So, when Samir's first H1B ran out, United Healthcare applied to renew it. And in 2014, he was approved. This is kind of how it went for Samir. His visa would run out, get renewed, run out, get renewed. Then he decided, okay, I want to stay in the United States for good. I really like it here.

 

Samir: And then, they filed for my green card.

 

Sinduja: United Healthcare sponsored him and the US Government said he's qualified for one. Samir has actually been waiting for a green card for a couple of years now. The US caps how many green cards it issues per country per year. And there are so many Indian people immigrating here that for us, there is a really long wait.

 

Al Letson: So at this point, it sounds like Samir has had a pretty typical H1B experience.

 

Sinduja: Yeah. He's been in the US for 10 years at this point. He and his wife started building a real life here. They had a son, and they bought their first house. Samir says, he spent years saving up for the down payment. It's a very beautiful big house in the suburbs of Dallas, and Samir was really in love with it.

 

Samir: I choose each and every single item for that house, the brick selection, or everything. We picked up the land. We went to each and every process, go to the design center. We'd put our hearts in it.

 

Sinduja: Samir and his family thought they were going to live here for the rest of their lives. That was in 2017, Trump's first year in office.

 

Reporter #1: This is breaking news. President Trump signing an executive order in Wisconsin not long ago, titled, Buy American Hire American.

 

Reporter #2: President Trump today ordering federal agencies a look at tightening the H1B Visa Program.

 

Al Letson: So in 2017, Trump signed the executive order, Buy American Hire American, which urged federal agencies to overhaul H1Bs.

 

Sinduja: Yeah, this is where the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services enters the story. Most people know it by USCIS. They're the agency that processes green cards, citizenship applications and visas like the H1B. Around this time, USCIS starts releasing a sea of memos basically directing its officials to approach H1Bs a lot more skeptically. Officials are told to look at each visa application as if it's a brand new case even if the person has been renewed many times before. And they're also told to really question an applicant's credentials. So, this means that if you're an immigrant, one of the questions these memos are trying to get at is, does your job really need you?

 

Sinduja: For Samir, well, it looks like his job really needs him. He's been at United Healthcare for seven years. He keeps getting raises, bonuses. And then in 2018, he gets moved to a subsidiary, a sister company within United Health Group doing the same kind of work and they filed his H1B again. And this time, there was trouble.

 

Samir: They said, okay, my H1 was denied.

 

Sinduja: Samir tried not to panic. He says his employer told him they would refile his application. Then, one morning at about 8:30...

 

Samir: There was a call. There was a meeting about a project. When I was giving some inputs on everything and everything went fine. At 9:00 AM, [inaudible] one-on-one meeting with me, the HR and the director.

 

Sinduja: In that meeting, they told Samir that they were terminating him.

 

Samir: I wasn't even able to talk, or do anything and my life just stopped.

 

Sinduja: United Health Group wouldn't talk to us about Samir's case. They did say that when an employee's H1B visa is denied, they're required by law to terminate them. They could have appealed USCIS's decision, but they didn't.

 

Samir: I asked my manager, "Guys, I know you're terminating, but are you giving me a two weeks notice, or something?" And then they said, "No." That's again, my heart stopped again and I asked them, "Okay, I've been working here for eight years. Are you sending me out with at least some severance package or anything?" "No." My heart stopped again.

 

Al Letson: Sinduja, what did this mean for Samir's immigration status?

 

Sinduja: Al, his status was tied to his job, so without his H1B his family would be forced to move back to India.

 

Samir: And even right now, my brain is freezed.

 

Sinduja: Did you then...

 

Samir: [inaudible 00:11:58]. That day was tough, really tough.

 

Al Letson: What did USCIS tell Samir about why his application was denied?

 

Sinduja: Well, I reviewed his denial. The agency pointed to Samir's education and said his master's degree wasn't 100% related to his job, so they decided he wasn't qualified.

 

Al Letson: Come on, a lot of people study one thing in school and go on to do something totally different.

 

Sinduja: Exactly. He also had experience doing this job, which the H1B visa is supposed to take into account. And when you look at Samir's case, he doesn't line up with the kind of person Trump says he's cracking down on. This is Trump right after signing his, Buy American Hire American executive order.

 

Donald Trump: Right now, widespread abuse in our immigration system is allowing American workers of all backgrounds to be replaced by workers brought in from other countries to fill the same job for sometimes less pay. This will stop.

 

Sinduja: It's true that with H1Bs there are plenty of people who haven't followed the rules. Companies have abused the program and used it to bring in low-paid foreign workers. H1Bs do need to be reformed, but Samir doesn't fit into that category. He was doing highly skilled work at a major company. I was curious to know how many other highly skilled people were getting denied too, so I started calling immigration attorneys all over the country.

 

Sandra Feist: So, I made a list of my top examples.

 

Sinduja: Sandra Feist is an immigration attorney based in Minneapolis. She says, officials are questioning whether some of her clients are qualified to do their jobs, even when their qualifications are pretty obvious.

 

Sandra Feist: I have two cases right now for mechanical engineers requesting additional evidence that the mechanical engineering degree earned in the United States is relevant to the mechanical engineering job. Apparently, the connection between those two is just not clear.

 

Sinduja: Then there are clients who are getting denied for being too qualified. For example, I came across this pathologist with a stack of degrees, including a master's degree in veterinary pathology, a doctor of veterinary medicine and a PhD in pathology. A Fortune 500 pharmaceutical company wanted to hire him as an associate director of pathology, but that application was denied. USCIS said his job could be done by someone without a college degree.

 

Al Letson: Wait, I don't know about anybody who learned about pathology in high school.

 

Sinduja: Me neither. The agency has also denied architects, engineers, all on the grounds that you don't need a bachelor's degree to do those jobs. Attorneys like Sandra find this so frustrating.

 

Sandra Feist: We don't know what the rules are anymore to the game.

 

Sinduja: A lot of Sandra's clients are Indian immigrants. They've worked for years on temporary visas while they wait in that long green card line. Now, instead of getting their residency, Sandra says some of them might be forced to move back to India. She remembers this one client. When USCIS denied her H1B, she had been living in the US for over a decade.

 

Sandra Feist: She looked at me across the table and she said, "I just feel like garbage. I feel like the government just thinks I'm garbage." It was really sad.

 

Sinduja: Sandra says that client sued the federal government over her H1B denial. And when she did, this funny thing happened. Before a judge even looked at the case, USCIS just reversed its decision and approved the visa.

 

Al Letson: So, did they just turn around and say they made the wrong decision here?

 

Sinduja: Well, there are lots of reasons people settle in court. The only way to really know what's going on here is to track down as many cases as possible, review them all yourself, and talk to all the attorneys, which is what I did.

 

Sinduja: Over the last few months, I worked this database, which several different legal experts tell me is the most comprehensive one they've heard of. The first thing I found is that the Trump Administration is getting sued a lot more over this. And remember, it's employers who apply for H1Bs on behalf of their employees, so companies are really sticking their necks out there by suing the federal government over this.

 

Sinduja: There may be more cases out there, but from what I found, before Trump took office, USCIS was sued about 10 times a year over H1B denials. But in the last two years, they've been sued almost 90 times and in over a third of those lawsuits, USCIS did the same thing they did with Sandra's client. They reversed their decision and approved those H1Bs before a judge could rule in the case.

 

Al Letson: Other than these lawsuits, do we have any other window into what's going on with H1Bs?

 

Sinduja: Yes, we do. USCIS has its own appeals process. I looked up those cases too. And I found that USCIS's own appeals office is overturning H1B denials at a record rate. In the past, it overturned less than 3% of its decisions. But in the last two years, the agency has been overturning 14% of its cases. That's more than five times as many.

 

Al Letson: So, what are we supposed to make of all this?

 

Sinduja: Well, I tried to talk to USCIS about wrongful denials. Agency spokespeople say, they won't comment on pending litigation. And they told me, they adjudicate all applications fairly. But according to the legal experts I talked to, this shift in the agency's H1B policies, it might be unlawful. They say when USCIS drastically changes the rules around a visa, it's supposed to allow for public comments and go through this formal rule-making procedure. And in this case, the agency didn't do any of that. These changes have thrown a lot of people's lives into chaos, particularly people who've lived on H1Bs in this country for so many years. That's what happened to Samir.

 

Samir: So I've decided, okay, man, I have to sell my house.

 

Al Letson: Samir and his wife sold the house?

 

Sinduja: They didn't have a choice. They thought they were going back to India.

 

Samir: I think in the past 10 years since we were married, that was a first time my wife saw tears in my eyes.

 

Sinduja: Samir and his family moved into a smaller apartment about five minutes away. He says they've tried to make the move seem like this big adventure to their son.

 

Samir: We didn't want to tell him that we were going through this pain. No father or parents would like to let their kids know that they're going through a hard time.

 

Sinduja: And then, this confusing thing happened. Samir scrambled to find another job. His new employer applied for an H1B on his behalf and strangely, it got approved.

 

Al Letson: Wait, wait, was there anything different about this application?

 

Sinduja: There was some minor differences, but really he's the same guy with the same qualifications with the same amount of experience for a similar job.

 

Al Letson: This just seems really inconsistent. Am I missing something?

 

Sinduja: No, Al. Inconsistent is a really good way of describing it. I came across several cases where it's not clear why USCIS is ruling one way or the other. And for Samir, it meant that all of this, selling his house, turned out to be for nothing. This?

 

Samir: Ah, yeah.

 

Sinduja: [inaudible] I missed it.

 

Samir: Yeah, this one.

 

Sinduja: Okay, maybe this one.

 

Samir: Yeah, this one.

 

Teresa: Ooh, there is a fountain in this one.

 

Samir: Oh, yeah.

 

Sinduja: When my producer Teresa and I went to Dallas, we visited Samir's dream house.

 

Samir: This is the house.

 

Teresa: Which one?

 

Samir: The white one.

 

Sinduja: Wow!

 

Teresa: Wow!

 

Sinduja: It was clearly more than just a house for him. Do you come here often, every once in a while?

 

Samir: I did, I used to. After I sold my house, I came in at least like 20, 30 times.

 

Sinduja: After he sold it, he kept driving by just to look at it. He used to visit once a day, then once a week. He tries not to anymore.

 

Al Letson: Sinduja, did reporting on this make you think about your family's situation differently?

 

Sinduja: You know, it just feels like the game keeps changing and it's kind of rigged against us. My family is also dependent on H1Bs and we also thought we might have to move back to India. Lawyers told us that my husband, Vindo's H1B could be denied, but it actually got renewed recently.

 

Al Letson: That is a huge relief.

 

Sinduja: It is. But, it's also only good for three years, so it doesn't change this constant limbo that we're in. We're still thinking of moving to Canada, or if we have to...

 

Vinod: Well, it is what it is. If nothing, we can always go back to India.

 

Sinduja: I don't want to. Vinod and I talk about leaving the United States pretty much all the time. He's tired of the uncertainty. One of my friends has already left. One of his closest friends is planning to leave too. This just made me realize that, we just gave our youth to this country. And so, I just feel like it's a betrayal of some sort. You know, we worked here, we congregated here. I've invested so much of my life here and I want to fight it out and stay, but I'm just not sure I'll be able to.

 

Al Letson: Sinduja, my friend, thank you so much for that story.

 

Sinduja: Thank you, Al.

 

Al Letson: Sinduja Rangarajan is a reporter with Mother Jones. That story was produced by Teresa Cotsirilos.

 

Al Letson: While many people are getting their H1Bs denied, there is another type of visa some immigrants aren't even getting a chance to apply for. That's coming up on Reveal.

 

Al Letson: From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

Al Letson: Our next story looks at a different kind of visa. One just as much for immigrants as it is for police officers. It's called a U visa. Undocumented immigrants are often afraid to report crimes to police, afraid that by calling 911 immigration authorities could get involved and possibly deport them. To fix this, Congress created the U visa. The goal is to build trust between police and victims of violent crimes. The police can say, hey, if you cooperate with us, if you help us with our investigation, we'll help you. You'll be able to apply for the U visa. It gives you status and protects you from deportation.

 

Al Letson: But Reveal Immigration Reporter, Laura Morel found that many police departments aren't using the U visa the way it was intended. Laura takes the story from here.

 

Laura Morel: Nataly Alcantara lived a pretty normal life in Honduras. She was good at math, went to college and majored in business administration.

 

Nataly: [Spanish 00:23:34].

 

Laura Morel: Nataly says, she wanted to go to college to help her parents. After graduating, she got a job as an accountant. Then she met someone, bought a house and had a son. But, her family's quite life ended in the Spring of 2014.

 

Nataly: [Spanish 00:23:52].

 

Laura Morel: She says, gang members started calling, threatening her. In Honduras, gangs often force residents to pay a monthly fee called, la renta on their homes and businesses. Suddenly, they demanded half of Nataly's paycheck. If not, they told her, they'd kill her son. And that's why she immigrated, to escape these threats...

 

Nataly: [Spanish 00:24:18].

 

Laura Morel: ... and to protect her son. When they arrived in Miami, Nataly and her partner had no visa, no status. Then, one night in November 2014...

 

Reporter #3: Police are searching this afternoon for two armed women who broke into a home and terrorized the family inside. They even threatened to kill a toddler and an infant during this robbery.

 

Laura Morel: Nataly, her partner, their toddler son and new baby were sleeping in a small room they rented in Miami when suddenly, Nataly woke up. Inside the room, she saw two shadowy figures. One of them had a gun, the other had a knife.

 

Nataly: [Spanish 00:24:59].

 

Laura Morel: It was dark, hard to see. Nataly says, she panicked when she saw the knife. The two intruders started yelling, demanding the family's money and valuables. "If you don't give us your money," they told her, "we'll kill your kids." Then one of the robbers turned to the crib where Nataly's three month old daughter was sleeping.

 

Nataly: [Spanish 00:25:20].

 

Laura Morel: The woman pointed a gun at the baby. Nataly jumped out of bed. She grabbed about $300 dollars from a wallet, pretty much all of the family's savings. The women also took Nataly and her partner's cell phones and then ran out the front door. After the robbery, Nataly tells me, she picked up her daughter from the crib and held her two children close. From a roommate's phone, she called the police.

 

Nataly: [Spanish 00:25:47].

 

Laura Morel: Minutes later, Nataly says, 10 or 11 police cars showed up outside and they blocked off the house with crime scene tape. Nataly could hear a helicopter circling over head. TV crews started to show up.

 

Reporter #4: Crime scene investigators came out here just a short time ago. They were taking pictures in the grass behind this home. And at this point, the investigation continues. Detectives really want to find these women.

 

Laura Morel: In the months after the robbery, Nataly focused on finding the women who terrorized her family. She tells me, she helped police any way she could. She answered their questions and checked-in every so often to see how the investigation was going. In total, Nataly says, she met with officers from the City of Miami Police Department three or four times. Investigators came by the house and showed her and her partner dozens of mugshots of potential suspects. Nataly thought she got a good look at the women's faces that night.

 

Nataly: [Spanish 00:26:48].

 

Laura Morel: But, she couldn't make a positive ID. Around the same time, Nataly started feeling the effects of the robbery. She couldn't sleep and she began noticing changes in her 18 month old son. He was just starting to say his first words.

 

Nataly: [Spanish 00:27:05].

 

Laura Morel: Like, water, momma, poppa.

 

Nataly: [Spanish 00:27:10].

 

Laura Morel: But, she says, after the break-in he just stopped talking. For about a year, he barely said a word and whenever he saw strangers in dark clothes, he'd burst into tears.

 

Laura Morel: A few months after the robbery, Nataly found out about the U visa. That's when she connected with Catholic Legal Services and Immigration Attorney, Maya Ibars. Maya has helped lots of immigrants apply for their U visas.

 

Maya Ibars: Unfortunately, we've had a lot of problems with City of Miami Police in agreeing to certify.

 

Laura Morel: A lot is required from victims like Nataly to apply for the U visa, not so much for police though. Basically, they have to sign a form certifying two things. One, that the applicant was a victim of a violent crime, and two, that they were helpful to investigators. That's it. Almost a year after the crime, Maya says they got a letter in the mail.

 

Maya Ibars: "After careful review, it has been determined that the Miami Police Department will not be certifying this application."

 

Laura Morel: The letter is one page long and nearly identical to ones I've seen from other victims and lawyers in Miami.

 

Maya Ibars: "As you may notice on the certification form it reads as follows," and this part is in bold and in quotes, "An agency's decision to provide a certification is entirely discretionary." So yeah, basically they're telling us, it's discretionary and we don't want to do it.

 

Laura Morel: Nataly was first victimized by gangs in Honduras, then by robbers in Miami. And now, after fully cooperating with investigators, Maya says it's like Nataly is being victimized all over again.

 

Speaker 16: Good morning. Come through.

 

Laura Morel: Hi.

 

Speaker 16: Hi. [crosstalk 00:28:57].

 

Laura Morel: I was just picking up some records.

 

Speaker 16: Okay.

 

Laura Morel: Let me just find the... I went to Miami Police Headquarters early one morning to pick up Nataly's case file. Sure.

 

Speaker 16: Anybody for records?

 

Laura Morel: Yes.

 

Speaker 16: Yes ma'am. Go to the window. [inaudible 00:29:13].

 

Laura Morel: The report is thicker than I expect. As I sit in the lobby flipping through the case file, it's clear that Nataly helped police as much as she could. She even did her own detective work. The report confirms that she called her stolen cell phone and a woman picked up. After Nataly told detectives about all this, they got the phone's call logs, which showed that after the robbery, Nataly's phone had been used to call a man. Detectives found that man and he told them the call came from an ex-girlfriend. And when police ran a background check on the ex, they saw that she was wanted for trespassing, so they arrested her. But, the woman denied any involvement in the robbery. On the bottom of one of the pages in the file, an officer wrote NFI, no further information, and Nataly's case was closed.

 

Laura Morel: I took these records back to Nataly to show her the new details I uncovered and see what she thinks. We sit at her dining room table. I hand her the report and translate it for her. [Spanish 00:30:15]. I tell her she has a good memory. The report includes everything she told us. [Spanish 00:30:26].

 

Laura Morel: It says, she was sleeping with her family when two people entered the room and pointed a gun at the baby. Nothing in the police report explains why Miami PD rejected Nataly's request. Nataly's lawyer, Maya says she was told it's because the police were never able to make an arrest in the case. I tried to explain this to Nataly. [Spanish 00:30:51].

 

Nataly: [Spanish 00:30:51].

 

Laura Morel: "So, my case wasn't strong enough," she asks, "even though they pointed a gun at my kids?" If Nataly's case wasn't strong enough, I wondered whose case is? So, I filed a public records request for information on every U visa case submitted to Miami PD over the last three calendar years. The data I got back was telling. Out of 235 cases, the department only certified 27 of them. Meaning, Miami Police rejected nearly 90% of the U visa requests that came before them.

 

Laura Morel: I took what I found to Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina. He's been with the department for about 30 years and was sworn in as chief last year. He tells me, the U visa is an important crime fighting tool.

 

Jorge Colina: Ultimately, the idea is to protect victims of crime and have them available to us, so we can utilize them, their testimony, to put a bad person in jail.

 

Laura Morel: I tell the chief what I found. That his department only approves about 10% of U visa certifications. What do you think about that? Is that a problem?

 

Jorge Colina: I don't know if it's a problem. It sounds like a low number.

 

Laura Morel: Colina tells me he's going to look into whether his department is following proper procedures. It's clear Chief Colina wasn't aware of how many U visa cases his department turns down until I told him.

 

Jorge Colina: It sounds low, for sure. And so, we're going to look at it a little closer.

 

Laura Morel: And in terms of Nataly's case, Colina says he only has preliminary details, but thinks maybe her application was rejected because the crime wasn't solved and no arrest were made. I tell him that's not a requirement and he suggests he'll look at her case again.

 

Laura Morel: How do you plan to make sure that the approval rate improves, or to make sure that you have a streamlined process for these requests coming in and for the consideration that they get?

 

Jorge Colina: I'm going to ask them to. So fortunately, I'm in a position here as the chief of police where I can find out because like I said, it's on us. We need to be mindful of the people that we're here to protect, everyone. And so, I'm going to have the ability to do that.

 

Laura Morel: To see how Miami compares, I called police departments in cities and counties with large immigrant populations across six different states. Many of them refused to comment.

 

Speaker 18: We do not have the time nor do we wish to participate in your nationwide survey of departments across the country.

 

Laura Morel: I talked to more than 100 law enforcement agencies in cities with large immigrant populations and found that nearly one in four find ways to block immigrants from applying for the U visa. Some reject victims immediately, others create their own arbitrary rules that go beyond what the federal government requires. Things like, only certifying a U visa after a case has gone to trial, or if the victim has serious injuries. Some agencies told me that processing these applications takes time.

 

Laura Morel: What I learned is that police departments treat immigrant crime victims differently across the country and whether or not the victims can get U visa protections depends entirely on where a crime took place. But, some police departments do follow the federal guidelines. Tony Flores works for one of them.

 

Tony Flores: I am a sergeant inspector with the San Francisco Police Department and it's the greatest job in the world.

 

Laura Morel: Tony has been a police officer solving domestic violence and human trafficking cases for the past three decades. He also travels around the country training police departments on how to use the U visa. Over the years, Tony has noticed a certain type of officer. He can spot them right when he walks into trainings.

 

Tony Flores: And you see that one person that's sitting there with their arms crossed and, you know, they don't want to be here.

 

Laura Morel: Tony gets their skepticism. Back when he first heard about the U visa, he had the same questions, like one officers ask him all the time, whether certifying the U visa means giving someone immigration status?

 

Tony Flores: I go, "No, you're not. What you are saying here at the moment is that this victim was a victim of a crime."

 

Laura Morel: The form police sign is just one document out of several victims need for their U visa application.

 

Tony Flores: So, our role is crucial. But also, our role is small in the big picture.

 

Laura Morel: Tony says in San Francisco he's seen how the U visa has helped fellow officers get information and do better police work and he's seen that undocumented immigrants are more willing to come forward and report crimes. But in trainings, Tony makes sure to tell officers that the U visa is not just about trust. It's also about getting criminals off the street.

 

Tony Flores: Wouldn't it be sad to know that you had a perpetrator in your grasp, in your sights, that you had the victim that was willing to cooperate with you and then, all of a sudden, you say, no I can't help you. And now, the perpetrator is out there doing this to other victims. That's how I see it.

 

Laura Morel: California, where Tony works, is one of just 11 states that have passed laws standardizing how police process U visa applications. But, Florida doesn't have a law like this. [Spanish 00:36:26].

 

Nataly: [Spanish 00:36:27].

 

Laura Morel: [Spanish 00:36:27].

 

Nataly: [Spanish 00:36:30].

 

Laura Morel: It's been five years since Nataly's family was robbed at gunpoint and they're trying to move on. They bought a small house in Miami and had a baby boy. But still, Nataly says, she has a hard time being alone.

 

Nataly: [Spanish 00:36:43].

 

Laura Morel: She gets scared and she has asked her partner to install a deadbolt on their front door. And when she's home alone, she takes an added precaution.

 

Nataly: [Spanish 00:36:57].

 

Laura Morel: Nataly grabs a chair from the dining room table, pulls it across the floor and shows me how she wedges it against the front door. The chair is flimsy, but she says at least it'll make a noise if someone tries to come in while she's sleeping.

 

Laura Morel: When Nataly first came to the US, she had an image of police that she had gotten from watching American movies. She tells me she assumes that most crimes here got solved quickly and that police did right by victims. But this whole experience, the robbery and then not getting her U visa signed, she says it's left a bad taste in her mouth.

 

Nataly: [Spanish 00:37:37].

 

Laura Morel: "The truth is," Nataly tells me, "police are the same in every country." This lesson, it's pretty much the exact opposite of what the U visa was meant to do.

 

Al Letson: New applications for U visas dropped in 2018 for the first time in a decade. Besides the fact that many police departments are turning down applicants, some advocates think that people are afraid to apply because of the anti-immigration policies and rhetoric coming out of the Trump Administration. Thanks to Reveal's Laura Morel for that story. It was produced by Ashley Cleek.

 

Al Letson: So, we've seen how immigrants are being denied visas that let them live and work in this country legally. And it turns out, people who want to pledge their loyalty to the US...

 

Group: I pledge allegiance to the flag...

 

Speaker 21: ... of the United States of America.

 

Group: ... of the United States of America.

 

Al Letson: They're having problems too. Why it's getting harder to become an American citizen, next on Reveal.

 

Al Letson: From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

Al Letson: The Paramount in Downtown Oakland, California is one of my all-time favorite theaters. It was built in the early '30s. It's art deco with dramatic lighting and lots of red velvet. Even the bathroom are classy. There is an event here that happens nearly every month. It brings out thousands of people dressed in their finery. Many are holding a document.

 

Speaker 22: Welcome, welcome new citizens.

 

Al Letson: Citizenship ceremonies like this mark the end of a long journey, one that's usually many years in the making. Reporter Monica Campbell from the public radio show The World visited one recent ceremony to understand what the citizenship process is all about and how it's becoming more difficult for people to become new citizens under the Trump Administration. Monica starts us off just before the ceremony is about to begin.

 

Monica C.: Inside the theater there are women in sequins, babies in dresses and tiny suits, and people holding flowers and bouquets. And if you stand around long enough, someone is going to ask you to take a group photo.

 

Speaker 24: One, two, three.

 

Monica C.: As I make my way through the lobby in the auditorium, a man spots my microphone. He's tall, wearing an elegant suit and holding a tiny American flag. As I get close, he leans in.

 

Yawnas W.: God bless America. God bless the American people, just lovely people. I'm very happy to be part of them. I'm very happy that my wife and my sons are going to be American citizens too.

 

Monica C.: His name is [Yawnas Waldaub 00:40:56]. He's from Eritrea and gives a big wave to his wife and two young kids as they head to the balcony to watch. And things kick off with US immigration officials onstage celebrating people from all over the world.

 

Randy Ricks: Well, let's hear it for our friends from China who are all here today.

 

Monica C.: Randy Ricks is an immigration officer with US Citizenship and Immigration Services or USCIS. He announces all 97 countries represented by people in this auditorium, and he doesn't just do it in English. He does it in Cantonese...

 

Randy Ricks: [Cantonese 00:41:31].

 

Monica C.: ... Spanish,

 

Randy Ricks: [Spanish 00:41:33].

 

Monica C.: ... Hindi,

 

Randy Ricks: [Hindi 00:41:36].

 

Monica C.: ... French.

 

Randy Ricks: [French 00:41:39].

 

Monica C.: And you could tell he really enjoys this. He's hamming it up.

 

Randy Ricks: Well, let's hear it for the Philippines.

 

Monica C.: Citizenship has become increasingly complication and drawn out. For most immigrants, there is a five year weight just to become eligible. After that, the process used to move quickly, but since President Trump took office, the wait for citizenship has grown longer and more challenging. Eric Cohen runs the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. He remembers a time when citizenship moved far faster.

 

Eric Cohen: In most cases about a six month wait time.

 

Monica C.: Start to finish?

 

Eric Cohen: Start to finish.

 

Monica C.: And now?

 

Eric Cohen: In some places, it goes as high as 15, and even as high as two years.

 

Monica C.: Now, that wait averages 10 months, but depending on where you live, it can take way longer. Eric has been working in immigration since the '80s. He calls himself a, Citizenship Evangelist. His organization leads one of the biggest grassroots movements to get people into the citizenship process.

 

Eric Cohen: It's about building our democracy. And the way to have a stronger democracy is to have as many people who can participate, participate.

 

Monica C.: But, participation is at risk because people applying for citizenship today might not get through the process in time for next year's election. A professor at Colorado's Metropolitan State University estimates that a minimum of 150,000 people might miss their chance to vote in 2020, not a trivial amount considering how tight some elections can get.

 

Monica C.: And there are other concerns. Researchers at Syracuse found that lawsuits over citizenship were up by 66% last year compared to five years earlier. Citizenship might also get a lot more expensive. USCIS has proposed raising the application fee to more than $1100 dollars, an 83% hike. And they want to make it tougher for low-income applicants to get fee waivers.

 

Monica C.: I wanted to talk to USCIS about all this. In a written statement they said that citizenship applications skyrocketed under Obama and that they've hired new staff and opened new offices to keep pace, but under Obama wait times were far shorter. I had more questions, but USCIS wouldn't grant me an interview. So, back at that citizenship ceremony, I decide to see if USCIS officials here would talk. There are actually two ceremonies today. In between them, I walk up on stage to ask some questions.

 

Randy Ricks: Randy Ricks.

 

Monica C.: Randy Ricks.

 

Randy Ricks: This is Joy Hamilton.

 

Monica C.: Oh, hello. Nice to meet you, Monica Campbell. I want to know about those wait times, but no dice. They say they're not allow to talk and questions have to go through the press contact.

 

Randy Ricks: Let Sharon field them?

 

Joy Hamilton: Yeah, and let Sharon field them.

 

Monica C.: Well, Sharon is going to pass that to DC and DC is going to resend me a statement.

 

Joy Hamilton: Yeah, yeah.

 

Randy Ricks: Well, unfortunately, I think that's where we are.

 

Monica C.: In this moment, they look like they want to talk, but they don't do it. [inaudible 00:44:51], nothing, okay. Thanks so much. I appreciate it. People like Randy Ricks, a long time staffer at USCIS who goes out of his way to greet new citizens in their own language, that's not who is setting the tone for USCIS these days.

 

Ken Cuccinelli: And let's be really clear, we are a vetting agency first not a benefits agency.

 

Monica C.: Ken Cuccinelli ran USCIS until November when he got a promotion. Trump named him the acting deputy director of Homeland Security, which oversees the USCIS and immigration enforcement, like ICE and Border Patrol. Cuccinelli has become the administration's go-to voice on immigration. He supports keeping families in detention and ending birth right citizenship. Last year, speaking to Breitbart, he likened migrants at the border to invaders who should be turned back.

 

Ken Cuccinelli: Literally, you don't have to keep them, no catch and release, no nothing. You just point them back across the river and let them swim for it.

 

Monica C.: Cuccinelli helped re-brand USCIS making it more about enforcement and vetting, which seems like overkill to immigration advocates, like Eric Cohen, the lawyer from the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. Eric points out that most citizenship applicants are green card holders who've been vetted before, often twice.

 

Eric Cohen: Here is someone who's going to have your fingerprints done. It's going to go through a number of databases including the FBI, DHS, and all sorts of other databases to check to see what sorts of ineligibility issues you might have. So, you go through a quite a rigorous process.

 

Monica C.: Eric and other lawyers say, they're seeing people's cases re-vetted at extreme levels. In one example, he says, an official checked for marriage fraud by asking to see an applicant's house key. They wanted to make sure it was identical to their spouses.

 

Eric Cohen: In one case, they had a kid together. Now, I mean, who commits marriage fraud being vetted twice and have a kid together? You don't make that stuff up.

 

Monica C.: USCIS officials say, they're overwhelmed with applications and it's true. There has been a surge, but this isn't new. Applications for citizenship have jumped before, usually around elections. Previous administrations typically added muscle to process applications more quickly and bring wait times back to normal. That's not happening today. Instead, Cuccinelli moves staff away from the problem, specifically to the US Mexico border where hundreds of officers were sent this year.

 

Ken Cuccinelli: When we have a pull on our resources like we have with the southern border crisis, it does inhibit our ability to do other things.

 

Donald Trump: My dear fellow Americans, it is with great pride that I welcome you into the American family.

 

Monica C.: Back at the citizenship ceremony on a large screen, there is a recorded message from President Trump.

 

Donald Trump: This country is now your country.

 

Monica C.: "This country is now your country." And what that means for lots of people here is security. Many in this auditorium are trading green cards for citizenship and there is a lot of reason to do that. The Trump Administration is making green card holders more vulnerable. Attorney General William Barr made it easier to deport legal permanent residents who commit certain crimes. It's security one I man I met here is grateful for.

 

Alejandro: My name is Alejandro Morales. I am from Mexico City and I feel great.

 

Monica C.: Alejandro has lived in the US for 30 years. He's an entrepreneur. He ran a jewelry store here and businesses in Mexico. He says, his daughter convinced him to get citizenship because she worried about him traveling back and forth between the US and Mexico on a green card.

 

Alejandro: We had, had a lot of troubles in this country about immigration, you know?

 

Monica C.: Yeah.

 

Alejandro: So, this is very important, not just for me, for the family, my daughter, my son, my granddaughters.

 

Monica C.: For Alejandro, citizenship means the freedom to travel in and out of the US with less worry and less anxiety for his family. And family, is a big deal at the ceremony. It's not just the people taking the oath today who will become new citizens. Their kids looking down from the balcony will get citizenship too automatically as long as they're under 18. That's been the law since 2000.

 

Randy Ricks: And now, all of you should be standing. It looks as though you all are. And now, you will represent one country.

 

Monica C.: As the ceremony winds down, everyone gets on their feet. They raise their right hand and recite the oath of allegiance.

 

Group: I hereby declare an oath.

 

Randy Ricks: That I absolutely and entirely...

 

Group: That I absolutely and entirely...

 

Randy Ricks: ... renounce and abjure...

 

Group: ... renounce and abjure

 

Randy Ricks: ... all allegiance and fidelity.

 

Group: ... all allegiance and fidelity.

 

Monica C.: It goes on for two solid minutes. The audience swears to support and defend the Constitution to bear true faith and allegiance, to bear arms and defend the US and to do so freely without [crosstalk] any mental reservation.

 

Randy Ricks: ... or purpose of evasion.

 

Group: ... or purpose of evasion.

 

Monica C.: It's taken years for many of the people here to get to this point. And it's a process that is getting longer and harder for those applying today.

 

Randy Ricks: Congratulations, new citizens.

 

Al Letson: Thanks to Monica Campbell for that story. She's a reporter at the public radio show The World. And today, those new citizens are going to play us out.

 

Group: [Singing 00:50:31].

 

Al Letson: Today's show was edited by Brett Myers, was produced by Teresa Cotsirilos, Ashley Cleek and Monica Campbell. Thanks to our partners at Mother Jones and the public radio show The World. For our story about H1B visas, we had a lot of help putting together that national database. We especially want to thank Stephen Yale-Loehr and Hun Lee at Cornell Law School, Jill Family at Widener University, the staff at the UC Berkeley and San Francisco law libraries and also, thanks to [Shawn Musgrave 00:51:14].

 

Group: [Singing 00:51:15].

 

Al Letson: Our production manager is Mwende Hinojosa. Original score and sound design by the dynamic duo, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man, yo, Arruda. They had help this week from Amy Mostafa and Claire C-note Mullen. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our editor-in-chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Commarado, Lightening.

 

Randy Ricks: Congratulations.

 

Al Letson: Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund and the Ethics in Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson. And remember, there is always more to the story.

 

Al Letson: Hey, my people. Today's show is a perfect example of the kind of deep investigative journalism Reveal does week in and week out. And I can tell you that for 2020 Reveal is churning out some of our most ambitious projects ever. This is the beginning of our end of the year membership campaign to help us close out the year strong. To become a Reveal member just text the world Reveal to 474747. Standard data rates apply and you can text stop or cancel at anytime. Again, to become a member just text the word Reveal to 474747. All right, let's go do some good work together.

 

Speaker 31: From PRX.