The Northwest Detention Center, a privately-run immigration detention facility in Tacoma.
The Northwest Detention Center, a privately-run immigration detention facility in Tacoma. ASK

In the fall of last year, immigration attorney Vicente Omar Barrazza gained a client who had been the victim of a hate crime, a felony assault, in Mount Vernon. Barrazza helps crime victims obtain a special type of visa—a U visa—that allows them to stay in the United States if they help law enforcement with an investigation.

But in order to obtain that visa, Barrazza says, prosecutors and police departments need to provide supplemental documents, or "certifications," in the visa application. Some Washington jurisdictions—Seattle, King County, Kent—respond in a timely fashion, Barrazza says. Often, though, police departments and prosecutors don't, or never respond. Barazza's Mount Vernon client, for example, hasn't yet heard back from Mount Vernon police.

"You better hope you're a crime victim in the right place," Barazza told The Stranger. "Because if you're a victim in the wrong place, you might not get any immigration relief."

Hence, a small, bright piece of news from the state legislature last week: Both the House and state Senate voted through a measure that will require Washington state law enforcement to respond to these kinds of visa requests. Police departments and prosecutors across the state now must respond to U visa requests within 90 days, or two weeks if the crime victim is already in deportation proceedings. The law will also apply to requests from trafficking victims, too. (Two years ago, California passed a nearly identical piece of legislation.)

Most of the applicants for U visas are domestic violence or sexual assault survivors. That's why the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WSCADV) also lobbied for the change in the law.

"We've been hearing for years that there's a lot of inconsistency around the state in how law enforcement handles [certifications]," Tamaso Johnson, policy director at WSCADV, said. "Some law enforcement won't sign it. Some victims won't hear back, or not until months and months later after they ask for the certification."

The bill that passed the legislature will also set up training standards to help law enforcement work with immigrant crime victims, which is an exciting development, Johnson said.

"That the bill passed the Senate unanimously, that's huge," Johnson. "It's a bill specifically designed to help undocumented survivors, which are some of the most marginalized people in our community."