Thousands of people who are in the U.S. illegally are allowed to stay every year because they've been victims of crime. The number of people who apply for a “U visa” far outnumbers the slots made available, and that’s created a backlog. And some people can’t even get on the list because they lack one piece of paper from police. For one undocumented immigrant in Montana, the lack of a U visa means he'll soon be deported.
Family photos cover the walls of this ranch house in eastern Montana.
Pictures of a dad holding a baby, a family celebrating Dia de los Muertoa, a son playing high school football.
That son, Juan Orozco, is now sitting on a couch next to his mother holding back tears.
He says he misses the sound of his dad in the house:
“You could usually hear dad up at 5:30, making his coffee, making weird noises to bug us," Juan says. "Now that he’s not here, it just feels weird not seeing the normal routine.”
Juan’s father, Audemio Orozco-Ramirez, has spent the past five months in a Colorado detention center. He’s a Mexican national who crossed the border with his family undetected nearly 20 years ago. Now he’s about to get deported.
But his lawyers argue he should stay here in the U.S. under a special U visa for victims of crime.
Back in 2013, Orozco-Ramirez says he was raped while in immigration custody at the Jefferson County jail in Montana.
Unlawful immigrants who can prove they were victims of serious crime like that are eligible to apply for U visas.
But Orozco-Ramirez’ former attorney, Shahid Haque says some of his clients have to wait years to get their applications processed.
“And so it’s really difficult for these victims of crime to rebuild their lives and move forward and regain any sense of security when their immigration status is not secured yet.”
U visas were originally created by Congress in the year 2000.
The idea was to give legal status to people who helped police investigate crimes like human trafficking or sexual assault.
But as the Obama administration ramped up deportations and President Trump cracked down on illegal immigration, more and more people applied for U visas.
This created a massive backlog because there’s a yearly cap to grant them to 10,000 victims plus their families.
Former Republican representative Connie Morella of Maryland says when she cosponsored the U visa bill, she agreed to that cap just to get it passed.
“It was sort of guesswork in a way, Morella says. "Ten thousand sounded like it might be a good number to start with. Let’s just see how many applications we get and then we can always increase it."
And that’s exactly what House Democrats tried to do in 2012. But Republicans balked, arguing the cap was a safeguard against fraud.
Morella, who left Congress in 2003, says that safeguard is baked into the application process. But she also says there needs to be more uniform guidelines.
For instance, law enforcement has the power to decide whether or not someone actually stays in the United States under a U visa. They are the ones that sign a form saying the crime actually happened and the victim was helpful in the investigation.
Immigration attorney Shahid Haque say getting police to sign those forms can be really tough. He says law enforcement — especially in Montana — aren’t familiar with U visas.
"It isn’t about saving someone from deportation or getting involved in the intricacies of immigration law. Really, it’s simply about signing a form attesting the two things that are required. That the person cooperated with law enforcement and that they were the victim of a crime."
And that’s where things get murky for Audemio Orozco-Ramirez.
Authorities say they can’t prove he was sexually assaulted. Some of the evidence, including the rape exam, was inconclusive. But there’s also missing surveillance video footage. His lawyers say it was deleted.
Orozco Ramirez eventually settled a lawsuit with Jefferson County in 2016. But his lawyer says authorities never signed the form saying Orozco-Ramirez was a victim of a crime.
So now he’s getting deported.
His son, Juan, says he believes his father.
"I mean, it’s not something anyone would joke about. Especially to his family and everyone involved. Of course we believe my dad."
But that belief isn’t enough to keep his dad in the U.S.