Experience has taught us to expect an increase in domestic violence after a major disaster. The Pandemic has been the perfect storm, with all of the stress and trauma of any disaster (loss of income, housing and food shortages, illness and death of loved ones etc.). This combined with long periods of confinement and isolation with partners or family members, has been especially difficult for undocumented immigrants. Perceiving few options, some might feel that abuse is preferable to what might face them (and their children) if they were deported.
This is why it's important for those who serve immigrants in any capacity, to be aware of resources such as the U-visa, and how to refer clients to professionals for guidance. The U-Visa is a nonimmigrant status available to undocumented immigrants who have been victims of certain crimes, including domestic violence and sexual assault, and who are or have been helpful to law enforcement in the prosecution or investigation of those crimes. (Note: CA has a mandate that requires law enforcement agencies to sign requests for victims of violent crimes who have been helpful to authorities.)
Providers serving clients who may be victims of violent crimes will be happy to hear that a June 14th policy change gives USCIS staff the discretion to immediately award new eligible U-visa applicants and their families the ability to live and work safely in the US, while they wait the many years currently necessary to complete the process. Until June 14th, this has not been the case.
The U-visa originated in 2000, as part of an update to the 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Its purpose was to allow undocumented immigrants to report crimes and cooperate with law enforcement, without fear of deportation. It was also meant to provide a safe avenue of escape from abusive situations. Victims can apply for a U-visa which when awarded, will allow them to work and remain safely in the US, with an ultimate path to Citizenship.
But like many USCIS programs, a huge backlog has accumulated. Currently, it has been taking at least 5 years for each submitted application to be reviewed, during which the victim has only a receipt for the application. It provides no legal employment authorization and no protection from deportation. During this time, the applicants (often domestic violence survivors who have left their source of support) have been expected to take care of themselves and their families, ineligible for many public benefits and with no legal ability to work. The U-visa has not been the incentive it was originally meant to be.
Congress placed a cap of 10,000 U-Visas a year, which has not increased over the past 20+ years. After the review, applications join a backlog of over 161,700 others in the pending file. The applicant is finally granted work authorization and deferred deportation status, while they wait several more years in the Pending line of 161,000+ and if there are no disqualifying factors, award of the U-Visa. This is currently taking another 4 to 5 years. The line is not just reduced by 10,000 a year. Pending applicants may find other ways to improve their immigration status, or may be deported and drop out of the process. (Note: If deported, applicants can still continue to pursue the U-visa from outside the US. It is even possible to apply initially for the U-visa from another country.) Three years after receiving the U-visa, the applicant will finally be eligible to apply for a Green Card (Legal Permanent Resident status).
In addition to the potential benefit for new applicants, the policy change also allows the USCIS staff to evaluate the files currently awaiting review, and award work authorization and legal protection during the years that applicants wait to be moved into the Pending file. This new policy could provide some stability to people who have presumably experienced a trauma and want to move on with their lives.
But it is uncertain whether significant USCIS staff can be assigned to reduce the huge backlog. USCIS funding is derived only from immigration and naturalization fees, and some processes, such as the U-visa, are free. Without streamlining the review process or an infusion of funding, the USCIS will still have the same inadequate budget that has created years long delays in almost every process. With finite staff and resources, it’s a Zero Sum Game. Any diversion to help the U-visa applicants can only come at the expense of other immigration processes, which also have built up backlogs that hold thousands of immigrants’ lives in limbo.
Still the policy change is a welcome acknowledgement that undocumented immigrants deserve protection from violent crimes and the police need their help to protect the whole community. While it is unlikely to shorten the years long wait, it does restore the original purpose of the U-visa. Undocumented immigrants applying now may have a more viable option to escape abuse, without suffering years of vulnerability.
While we recognize and appreciate steps in the right direction (after so many years of the opposite), we must continue to advocate for a welcoming immigration system that recognizes the value of immigrants and refugees - their time and their lives. We need to Make America "Greet" Again!
Anyone who would like to apply for a U-Visa should definitely seek the help of an immigration attorney or BIA accredited representative. In the Bay Area, we are fortunate to have a number of vetted legal service providers on the Immigration Legal Services Referral List who can provide free or low cost assistance for low income clients. People who have already filed and want to understand how this new policy might affect their status, should contact their attorneys. Anyone who filed without a lawyer, can contact one for guidance now. For help outside of the Bay Area, the Department of Justice maintains a national List of Pro Bono Legal Service Providers
The Santa Clara County Office of Gender-Based Violence Prevention (OGBVP) also offers important resources including a list of SCC shelters, for victims of gender-based crimes.
Immigrantinfo.org has over 50 links to local, state and national domestic violence information, articles and resources.
Bay Area service providers who would like more information can contact Nina Sachdev, USCIS Community Relations Liaison, email@example.com