Cindy Soto had a memorable second birthday. That's the day she entered the U.S. Her mother brought her, along with an aunt, from Guatemala to the U.S.-Mexico border. They hid with more than a dozen others until night. Then in a wild dash, the group ran across the border to Arizona. The 16 year old says after entering the U.S., the family worked at meatpacking and food processing plants across the country.
"We went to California, to Los Angeles, California. And we lived in California for like three years. Then we moved to Arkansas and we lived there for four years. And then we moved to Minnesota, that's how we got here," says Soto.
When Soto was twelve and living in Minnesota she met a 27 year old man. The two had sexual relations. Police arrested Carlos Hernandez and charged him with criminal sexual conduct. He plead guilty and was sent to prison. During the investigation he threatened Soto and her family. Despite the threats, Soto cooperated with investigators.
"I told him stuff about him that he had done. At that time Hernandez used drugs, and I told him about it. I told him everything," says Soto.
“I think I do deserve this chance to get this visa to stay here.”Cindy Soto
Although she didn't know it at the time, her testimony is Soto's best hope for winning a visa.
Last spring Soto applied for what's called a a U visa. The program's regulations are still being finalized, so the U visa itself has not yet taken effect. Still, qualifying illegal immigrants are being granted interim relief under the general guidelines of the law.
An important goal of the U visa is to encourage illegal immigrants to testify in criminal investigations. Anyone helpful to prosecutors is eligible for a U visa. Soto's cooperation with law enforcement seems to make her a cinch for U visa relief.
"I think I do deserve this chance to get this visa to stay here," says Soto. "I have so many plans for the future."
So far though she's failed.
Her biggest obstacle is having law enforcement officials certify that Soto helped investigators. In refusing to grant that certification, an assistant Steele County attorney noted that the Hernandez criminal case is closed.
Christy Hormann said since the case is closed Soto is not needed by the prosecutor anymore. She concludes "The U visa for Ms. Soto is not appropriate". She acknowledges though that Soto did help investigators. A Minnesota Public Radio inquiry about the case lead assistant county attorney Hormann to change her mind.
"After doing some deeper digging and research I was able to find an obscure memo that isn't accessible to all people," says Hormann. "And that memo does in fact say that Ms. Soto would be allowed to apply for the U visa. So at this point, we would have no objection to filling out the certification form."
Soto's struggle is not unusual. Gail Pendleton co-chairs a group called the National Network to End Violence Against Immigrant Women. She says many investigators have never heard of the U visa. She says when she tells them about it, this is a common reaction.
"They won't talk to us or they run away because they think that we're going to turn them over and get them deported. And this, we can now offer them something for helping us," says Pendleton.
For Cindy Soto the desire to stay in the U.S. is more than the typical immigrant dream. The man she helped put in prison is also from Guatemala. He'll be deported when he finishes his prison term. Soto fears if she's sent back, he'll come looking for her.