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Less than three months into the federal fiscal year, the U.S. government already has reached its U visa quota for victims of crime. When these visas are available, they are life-saving to recipients and case-making to law enforcement. But Congress has determined only 10,000 should be available per year. Previous years’ backlogs had grown so much that this year the allocated U visas were exhausted within weeks.

Immigrant victims of crime may receive U visa protection from removal for themselves and certain family members in order to facilitate their involvement in the investigation and prosecution of the crimes committed against them. The visas are a critical law enforcement tool that allows immigrant victims to come forward without fear of immigration reprisals. The government only issues visas to victims who have a special certification from law enforcement, have experienced substantial hardship, do not have legal barriers to gaining immigration status (such as criminal convictions), and meet the other requirements for the visa.  

Now, for the remaining nine and a half months of the fiscal year, individuals who qualify for U visas will receive conditional approvals at best. The conditional approvals will enable U visa applicants to receive employment authorization and protection from removal, but the difference between conditional approval and an actual U visa is significant. U visa recipients are eligible for lawful permanent residence after three years, they receive longer-term employment authorization, and perhaps most importantly, their qualifying spouses and children abroad may join them in the United States. Support from family members is critical to helping immigrant survivors pursue charges against their abusers. For victims of transnational criminal activity, leaving family members behind in countries where they remain vulnerable undermines the purpose of the U visa and greatly reduces its efficacy.   

Take, for example, Ana,* an NIJC client whose U visa application is pending before United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Her children are derivative beneficiaries on her application. They are in Mexico, waiting for permission to be reunified with their mother. Ana struggles with anxiety and depression as a result of the abuse she experienced. Her separation from her children abroad, who live with an aging grandmother whose health is failing, has increased her sense of hopelessness. Because the U visa cap has been reached, the earliest possible date Ana might receive an approval is October 2014. In the meantime, Ana cannot visit her children or mother without seriously compromising her pending application.

Ana is one of thousands of immigrant victims of crime who, thanks to the U visa, have stepped forward to help law enforcement bring abusers to justice. Many noncitizens fear law enforcement and believe that contact with police and prosecutors will lead to deportation and separation from their families.  That fear prevents them from reporting even the most serious crimes committed against them; immigrants have historically been reluctant to participate in ongoing investigations or prosecutions. Congress created the U visa in 2000 to combat this fear and to strengthen relationships between law enforcement and immigrant communities.

But the rate of crimes against noncitizens outpaces the number of visas available. As the waits for U visas grow longer, the willingness of immigrant victims to step forward and expose themselves to help law enforcement will diminish.

Both the Obama administration and Congress have the power to make more U visas available. USCIS should recapture the thousands of visas that went unused in the years between when Congress created the U visa and authorized 10,000 visas per year, and 2008 when the administration at last enacted regulations and began issuing the visas. Congress should ensure that adequate numbers of visas are available in the long term by increasing the annual allocation to 18,000—a change that was included in the Senate’s S.744 immigration bill.

Tell Congress to increase the U visa cap now: immigrantjustice.org/action/UVisaCap.

 

Jennifer Scarborough is a paralegal and Lisa Koop is an associate director of legal services for Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center.