It's hard to tell whether U visa fraud is truly common, or whether defense attorneys are merely doing a good job of making it seem so. If victims commit perjury or file false police reports, they are susceptible to prosecution and deportation. Plus, some advocates warn applicants they are exposing themselves on their applications by alerting the government that they're in the country illegally. That seems to be unfounded paranoia. USCIS spokeswoman Sharon Rummery says the agency doesn't tell immigration enforcement officers about the applicants it rejects. Attorneys concede that, so far, USCIS has kept its word. Clients whose cases are rejected merely return to living under the radar. Nothing gained, nothing lost.

Mardoqueu Silva never found out whether the man who held a pistol to his head 16 years ago went to jail. But two years ago, his immigration attorney told him to find out whether the police still had a record of the incident. After a three-hour search, a police record room staffer set the official report before him: the 1995 armed robbery of a Geneva Pizza deliveryman in Visitacion Valley.

Silva's attorney mailed his U visa application in September 2009. Six months later, Silva got a call. The thug had done Silva the biggest favor of his life. He and his wife were in. He considers it a godsend: "I couldn't believe something so good could come out of something so bad."

Jean-Philippe Dobrin
Mardoqueu Silva got a U visa last year for getting robbed at gunpoint on a Geneva Pizza 
delivery in 1995.
Jean-Philippe Dobrin
Mardoqueu Silva got a U visa last year for getting robbed at gunpoint on a Geneva Pizza delivery in 1995.

Last year, USCIS reached the 10,000 cap on U visas for the first time. It looks like the agency is on target to meet it again in the 2011 fiscal year, having received 3,331 applications in the first quarter. Anti-immigration groups say that's a lot of work permits in a time that the United States doesn't have enough employment for its citizens. "With unemployment rates the way they are, I think it's hard to justify bringing more workers in for jobs that Americans otherwise would be doing," says Gretchen Pfaff of the Santa Barbara–based Californians for Population Stabilization. "You have to consider the chain migration that comes with that. They can bring in their immediate family, and all those people are now in America needing those jobs."

Many advocates express concern that the woeful economy and anti-immigrant zeitgeist will cause lawmakers to more closely scrutinize the program. "We do worry, because we do believe the U visa has opened a lot of doors for people, and given some nice benefits to people who wholly deserve it," says Christopher Martinez of Catholic Charities. "But there's going to be forces out there that say this is too generous."

Meanwhile, Robert Uy, a staff attorney at Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach in San Francisco, thinks the visa's law-and-order goal will save it. "Even the most conservative people tend to want people who are committing crimes to be put behind bars," he says.

Silva would likely win over many conservative critics. He attributes his visa to an intervention of God through the U.S. government. He talks about his and his wife's new legal status with the zeal of a convert: "We can now be all that we can be." He got his driver's license. He plans to travel back to Brazil for the first time in 20 years to see his family.

Earlier this month, a Seventh-Day Adventist church in Jacksonville, Fla., offered Silva a position as assistant pastor. He had dreamed about attending theology school for years, but didn't have the immigration papers to do it in good conscience. He accepted. Now he'll have a church full of congregants, many of them immigrants, to whom he can preach the gospel — be it of a forgiving God, or a forgiving visa.

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