Raped as a toddler in Mexico, and again as a little girl growing up in DuPage County, this smiling 22-year-old mother strolling through Byron Park in Addison with her two children now has a new fear. She's scared she could be snatched off the street and deported to Mexico before authorities can wade through evidence that suggests she has earned a right to live in the United States.
"That's always a worry," says the woman, who we're calling by her middle name, Liz.
Because her cooperation in 2002 helped send a DuPage County pedophile who raped her to prison, Liz qualifies for a special "U-Visa" that would give her four more years during which to apply for a green card, which would allow her to stay permanently, says immigration attorney Bethany T. Hoffmann of Rockford, who has been handling Liz's case without charge.
"The U-Visa is an important visa and many people don't know about it," says Marilu Cabrera, spokeswoman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services of the Department of Homeland Security. U-Visas are part of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, which was created by Congress in 2000 as a way to encourage immigrants to report cases of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking and other crimes without fear of being deported.
That act allows for 10,000 U-Visas a year, and there is a waiting list. Officials currently are reviewing applications from June of 2014.
In a news conference Monday in Chicago, Democratic Illinois Senate President John Cullerton and immigration officials introduced Senate Bill 31, also known as the TRUST Act, which would set state guidelines, create accountability and add protections for immigrant victims of crime and trafficking.
"We need to show them (immigrants) that we do care," says state Sen. Cristina Castro, a Democrat from Elgin who represents the 22nd District.
"This seems like a no-brainer," attorney Hoffmann says of Liz's case.
Because she came to the U.S. when she was 5 years old, Liz also was covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program started in 2012 by President Barack Obama, which postponed deportation for people who entered the country illegally as minors.
"Under President Trump, that's thrown out the window and everybody is considered a priority," says Trisha K. Teofilo Olave, a senior legal supervisor for the National Immigrant Justice Center's Immigrant Legal Defense Project. Days after Trump became president in January, he signed an executive order that makes "all removable aliens" subject to deportation.
Liz was born in 1994 to a single mom in Mexico City. Illegally crossing the border in pursuit of a better life in the United States, her mother left 1-year-old Liz with an aunt and uncle in Mexico. Some of Liz's earliest memories are of being raped by an older cousin, but her complaints were ignored. Her mother returned to Mexico in 2000 with a plan to sneak 5-year-old Liz across the border with another family.
"I think they used fake papers," Liz says, who reunited with her mom in Arizona. "It was very scary. I would cry in the morning."
When she made it to her mother's apartment in DuPage County, her mom's boyfriend began sexually abusing her.
"He said, 'Hey, don't tell anything to your mom. I'm not going to do it again,'" Liz recalls. "Then, the next day would be the same thing again, It happened for a couple months."
In December of 2003, after Liz told police what happened, her attacker pleaded guilty to two felony counts of predatory criminal sexual assault of a child, and was sent to prison. He was released in 2015 and remains on parole.
To earn her U-Visa, Liz needs a "certification" from a law enforcement agency, affirming that she was a victim and cooperated with the investigation. Her attorney, Hoffmann, requested certification from the DuPage County state's attorney's office and was denied. Hoffmann managed to get her client a certification from the police department that investigated the crimes against Liz. One of the aspects of the proposed TRUST Act is that it would require agencies to follow the same guidelines for handling certification requests and keep records.
"The purpose is to encourage immigrant victims of crimes to come forward," Hoffmann says.
"If immigrant communities are afraid to come forward and report crimes than our communities are less safe," says Teofilo Olave of the National Immigrant Justice Center.
"I always liked this country, but ever since Obama, I like it more," says Liz, who says she can't imagine taking her U.S.-born children back to the nation where she was born. "For a Mexican, I don't know the history. I just know the flag colors."