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Snitch Visas: A Pipe Dream

by David M. Reutter

When Nervin Coronado was charged in 2009 with participating in a mortgage fraud scheme, he faced more than just prison time. He faced deportation because he immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 12 and never became a U.S. citizen.

Like others before him, Coronado struck a deal with the Justice Department (“DOJ”) to provide information. In return, the DOJ promised to recommend an S visa for him, or what is more commonly known as a “snitch visa.” The FBI’s Confidential Human Source Policy Guide describes it as an “immigration relief dangle.”

The S visa was part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which was drafted by then Sen. Joe Biden. It was intended to be a tool to compel noncitizen informants to cooperate with law enforcement in investigations of major crimes and terrorism. The carrot of the S visa came in two parts: (1) informants are given three-year temporary status and (2) if they fulfill their obligations they are granted permanent residency. The law permits 200 criminal and 50 terrorism related S visas annually.

The most criminal informant visas granted was 105 in 2001, The Intercept reported. They are less frequent these days, for only 16 were granted in 2018, the most recent year that data are available. Five terrorism related S visas were granted in 1995. Since then, only one terrorism related S visa has been granted.

In a June 2021 report by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Coronado’s lawyer, Brad Gershel, found that the government rarely delivers on its S visa promises.

“My preconceived belief going in, which I thought was a reasonably held one, was very much that government agents were acting in bad faith,” wrote Gershel. “To the contrary, the problem is bureaucratic red tape; a flawed application process that is mysteriously guarded from public scrutiny; and a lack of sufficient incentives to undertake the daunting and drawn-out process. There is, quite simply, a systematic unwillingness to issue these visas.”

Obtaining an S visa requires an application from the DOJ and then approvals from agencies under the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”). The process can take up to a decade. The law also requires that law enforcement monitor the applicant until the process is complete.

Agents with the FBI, DEA, and other agencies start with an application that is then reviewed by the DOJ alongside an optional advisory panel from Citizenship and Immigration Services (“CIS”). A final review by the Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division is followed by another review by DHS and a full review by CIS. It then proceeds back to DOJ to sign off on. At any stage, the application can be rejected with no explanation.

“You can imagine any boss in any regional office, ‘We just don’t have the money, the support, or the expertise to track someone continuously and then report what he or she is doing,’” Gershel said. “It’s a heavy burden.”

Despite the bureaucratic maze and few actual S visas being granted each year, federal agents continue to dangle immigration relief to obtain the cooperation of non-citizens who face deportation for involvement in criminal activity.

“Everyone knows it’s just a pipe dream,” Gershel said. “Yeah, good luck getting it in 10 years.”

Coronado, however, had no clue. He thought he was being offered an opportunity to stay in the country he entered at the age of 12. He provided information that led to the conviction of nine people involved in the mortgage fraud scheme, including two lawyers and a former New York Senate candidate.

When it came time to seek the promised S visa recommendation promised to Coronado, the DOJ balked. It said Coronado could not articulate “verifiable safety concerns” if he was returned to the Dominican Republic. An immigration judge ordered Coronado’s deportation in 2016. After a series of unsuccessful appeals, he was deported there years later. 


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