Nevada Legislature considers ditching existing citizenship requirements for Victim Fund payouts

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Photo accredited to the American Immigration Council, 2015

Originally published in The Nevada Sagebrush on Feb. 28, 2017

http://nevadasagebrush.com/blog/2017/02/28/nevada-legislature-considers-ditching-existing-citizenship-requirements-for-victim-fund-payouts/

The Nevada Legislature is considering a bill allowing the eligibility for compensation of victims of violent crime, regardless of their citizenship status. If the bill is written into law, undocumented immigrants living in Nevada will qualify for a program that provides financial support to victims of crimes involving physical injury, threat of physical injury or death.

Assembly Bill 122 was heard by the Joint Meeting of the Assembly Committee on Judiciary and Assembly Committee on Corrections, Parole and Probation on Monday, Feb. 13.

Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson, D-Reno, is the primary sponsee of Assembly Bill 122. Her testimony in last week’s joint committee meeting was matched by members of the Nevada Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence and Tu Casa Latina, a northern Nevada-based nonprofit that advocates for immigrant women, men and children who are victims of violence and abuse.

“This is a human rights issue,” Benitez-Thompson said. “If a person violently attacks another person, that person’s citizenship status shouldn’t matter in terms of being able to get assistance.”

The Victims of Crime program provides support to victims during the fallout of a violent crime. It is not funded with taxpayer dollars, but with forfeited  appearance bonds, gross misdemeanor fines, DMV fees and other revenues. It covers lost wages, hospital bills and even funeral expenses and accepts claims as high as $35,000.

In 2016, it denied the applications of 54 violent crime victims because they were not documented U.S. citizens.

“Nevada is only one of two states that have a prohibition from allowing victims of a crime to apply if they are not a citizen of the United States,” Benitez-Thompson said.

Alabama is the other state with a citizenship qualification for victims.

Lizzie McElheney, a senior at the University of Nevada, Reno, fears that hateful rhetoric will dominate students’ discussion and understanding of the bill.

“The buzz around this bill will be more harmful than the bill itself because of the extreme polarization of the word immigrant,” McElheney said.

She described what she called an exceedingly common American narrative: the term immigrant is rarely associated with white faces.

“I’m a Jew, and in Judaism I was taught to stand up for the voiceless,” McElheney said. “For me, it’s not hard to imagine being in a sh — situation because of how powerful institutions treat you.”

Victims seeking financial support in Nevada must meet a myriad of requirements other than citizenship.

“In order to qualify for these dollars, they have to file a police report within three days and they have to participate with law enforcement in the persecution of their defender,” Benitez-Thompson said.

Assembly Bill 122 will delete the citizenship qualification of the Victims of Crime program, but not the long, grueling process of a violent crimes victim.

When asked if information from the program’s undocumented applicants is made available to federal agencies, like U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Benitez-Thompson said the Victims of Crime program assists victims with beginning the U visa process so that they start on the path towards citizenship.

Congress passed the U nonimmigrant visa along with the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act in October 2000. Law enforcement, bolstered by the legislation, can more easily work with undocumented victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and trafficking.

“This bill has been misconstrued as something that helps undocumented people stay undocumented and that is not true at all,” Benitez-Thompson said.

The Las Vegas Sun reported the bill was not passionately debated in the joint committee meeting.

“I would agree it’s a human rights issue,” said Keith Pickard, R-Henderson. “Where someone comes from should not be a factor when receiving compensation for these crimes.”

The bill caters to violent crime victims who have every legal fear of talking with law enforcement. Its supporters said undocumented victims are more apt to stay with their abusers rather than jump through the hoops of few legal options. According to the Victims of Crime office, these victims often do not reach the office’s doors for fear of their immigration status being flagged.

“This bill provides a supportive environment where victims are able to come forward and, ultimately, it puts offenders of violent crimes behind bars,” Benitez-Thompson said.

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