SACRAMENTO — It happened so fast, Guillermo Hernandez said, that he just heard "Boom!"
"I kind of half dropped to the ground," Hernandez said.
A bullet lodged in his skull, from a gun fired by one of the robbers who came into the Fair Oaks cigar store where Hernandez rented space in 2007 for a check-cashing business. Hernandez, who came to the United States illegally from Mexico when he was 9, endured surgery and months of recovery.
But out of this traumatic experience emerged an opportunity for Hernandez, now 28. He became eligible for a visa that allows him to remain in this country legally.
Hernandez qualified for a U visa, a relatively new program that rewards foreigners who are victims or witnesses of certain crimes – mostly violent ones – and who help in the investigation and prosecution of those crimes.
"It helps victims cooperate with law enforcement without fear of deportation so that criminals can be brought to justice," said Sharon Rummery, a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman.
Police and immigration advocates say the U visa program remains relatively unknown in the United States, and they worry that Arizona's highly publicized new immigration law will work against the effort to bring victims and potential witnesses out of hiding.
"A law like that puts a chill on anyone wanting to cooperate with police," said Douglas Lehrman, a Sacramento immigration attorney.
Arizona's law, which takes effect July 29, requires police officers to check the residency status of anyone they stop and suspect to be in the country illegally.
Sgt. Fabian Pacheco of the Tucson, Ariz., Police Department said the U visa has been part of his department's efforts to build trust with the Latino community and has led to breaks in homicide cases.
Pacheco said he fears that, at this point, the public is more aware of Arizona's new immigration law than it is of the U visa.
UC Davis law professor Kevin R. Johnson, who specializes in immigration law, agreed. With the Arizona law, he said, those who are here illegally "are going to try to avoid dealing with police at all cost."
He added: "They are not even going to hear about the U visa."
Congress created the U visa in October 2000 when it passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act. Drafting the regulations delayed implementation for another seven years.
Law enforcement agencies support a victim's application by certifying that the foreigner has suffered substantial physical and mental abuse and "has been, is being, or is likely to be helpful" to a case. Then it's up to U.S. immigration authority to approve the visa, which grants temporary legal status for four years.
After three years, a U visa holder can apply for permanent residency.
In December 2008, the federal government started issuing the visas en masse. Since then, more than 10,000 U visas for primary applicants have been approved. Another 7,300 have gone to family members. Nearly 12,400 more applications are pending.
Attorneys and law enforcement officials say the majority of U visa cases involve victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Illegal immigrants who fear deportation often are unwilling to seek help from authorities, making them easy prey for their abusers, said Oakland police Lt. Kevin Wiley.
"Those two areas have the lowest rate of disclosure," said Wiley. "The fact that people are coming out with the most private of crimes shows that the U visa is working."
Nilda Valmores, executive director for My Sister's House, a Sacramento shelter that caters to battered Asian and Pacific Islander women and children, called the U visa "a lifeline … for women to grab if they qualify."
Her group has helped about a dozen women in the past five years gain legal residency through the U visa program and Violence Against Women Act. Women qualify for VAWA status if their abusive spouse is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.
Agencies differ in how they handle U visa applications. Lawyers say the regulations do not require that an investigation be completed for an applicant to be eligible, but some agencies are less willing to sign the forms if the perpetrator is never caught or no charges are filed.
In Sacramento, the police and sheriff's departments refer most U visa cases to the District Attorney's Office for certification. "We do a few a year," said Cindy Besemer, Sacramento County's Chief Deputy District Attorney.
What about someone lying about a crime to obtain a U visa?
Besemer said by the time U visa cases come to her office, they have been thoroughly investigated. "We'd know whether a case involves false allegations," she said.
Johnson, the law professor, said he hasn't come across fraudulent U visa cases. He said most agencies' requirements – which some immigration experts say are too stringent – for signing the forms provide ample safeguards.
Hernandez was alerted to the U visa program by a family member a few months after being shot.
His suspected assailants and two accomplices were arrested. Two made plea deals, one was convicted and another awaits a retrial. The District Attorney's Office noted on Hernandez's U visa application that "his testimony is necessary to prove what happened and to prove the identity of the suspects."
His visa was approved last October. "Now I'm somebody here," he said.