By: Albert B. Kelly, Mayor, City of Bridgeton
Mayoral Musings is a regular column penned by Bridgeton’s very own, Mayor Albert B. Kelly.
BRIDGETON, N.J. — As an elected official at the municipal level of government, I find it difficult to think about issues in a purely political way. At the local level it’s more about practicality than politics. A prime example of the practical taking precedence over the political involves undocumented immigrants. This came to mind recently when a resident asked about our use of the U Visa locally while sharing a piece on U Visas from the nonprofit website “Reveal,” which is operated by The Center for Investigative Reporting.
If you’re not familiar with it, the U Visa was enacted by Congress a couple of decades ago with the idea that undocumented immigrants who are victims of crime might be more willing to report crimes and help law enforcement with the investigations without fear of being deported. When granted, a U Visa provides temporary status specifically to undocumented victims of violent crimes (e.g. assault, rape, domestic violence, kidnapping etc.).
According to the Reveal report, police or some other law enforcement agency investigating the crime have to complete a five-page certification form as part of an application process that ultimately goes to the federal level where officials decide if an applicant qualifies. The report points out that far from being a “free pass” at the local level, the five-page certification form is really just a small part of a larger process.
The Reveal piece emphasizes the fact that whether or not a crime victim will have the chance to apply for a U Visa is largely dependent on where they live. Some police departments around the country don’t involve themselves in any way with U Visas while others make it incredibly hard for crime victims by creating additional criteria, such as whether or not the crime was solved. It’s basically a crapshoot — what the report characterizes as “capricious” — not surprising when you consider the politics.
But if the point is to get as much help as possible from crime victims (who happen to be undocumented) in getting violent offenders off the streets, then let the politics bow to public safety. For perspective, it helps to note that the number of U Visas granted nationwide per year is capped at 10,000 and that having been certified by a law enforcement agency, an applicant joins a decade-long waiting list with upwards of a quarter million other applications seeking approval.
As for certifications of U Visas here in Bridgeton over the past 36 months, it comes to 124 — 43 in 2017, 51 in 2018, and 30 so far in 2019. Like all such measures, it’s a tool in the form of an incentive to crime victims who are undocumented to encourage them to be part of the solution. If it can help bring a criminal to justice and protect others, then this tool should be used without apology.
This point was emphasized by Attorney General Gurbir Grewal in a recent visit to the area to discuss his 2018 “Immigrant Trust Directive,” which seeks to find a practical balance between the politics of immigration and what’s happening on the ground in real time regarding crime, policing, and public safety.
The same can be said about the issue of providing drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants. There’s the politics surrounding the issue, yet the voices I routinely hear are those of frustrated residents who’ve been involved in a car accident with an undocumented, unlicensed, and uninsured driver so it ends up being the law-abiding resident who takes the hit in the form of higher premiums.
For me, it is a matter of public safety. I’d rather have people driving who have been tested and trained as part of getting a license. Along with public safety are the issues of insurance and accountability; if some of these individuals are going to drive regardless, it’s better to have them become part of a legitimate framework than not. Depending on how it’s implemented, licensing with a category and appropriate fees for these drivers may possibly result in better premiums statewide. Yet, separating the politics from the practical is no small thing.