Immigrant crime victims generally lack access to the criminal justice system because of language barriers, cultural differences, and ignorance about the process. Most of all, their fear of deportation and separation from family members discourages them from seeking police protection, shelter, medical care and other social services. Abusive partners also use the threat of deportation to keep immigrant victims of domestic violence isolated. Immigrant groups are victimized at rates similar to the general population, but their rates of reporting crime are much lower. Thus, recognizing that immigrant communities are extremely vulnerable to victimization, Congress created the U-Visa program to ensure that immigrant crime victims are afforded safety and protection, regardless of their status in the U.S.
Specifically, in October 2000, Congress introduced the “U” nonimmigrant classification with the passage of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (including the Battered Immigrant Women’s Protection Act.) The legislation was intended to strengthen the ability of law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute cases of domestic violence, sexual assault, trafficking of aliens and other crimes while, at the same time, offering protection to victims of such crimes. Unfortunately, the U visa provisions are complex and immigrant communities are often unaware that the program is available to provide relief to crime victims and pave the road to obtaining lawful status in the United States.
Who is Eligible for a U Visa?
To become eligible to receive the immigration benefits under the U nonimmigrant classification, the individual must meet the following requiremements: (1) he/she must have suffered substantial physical or mental abuse as a result of having been a victim of criminal activity; 2) he/she has information concerning that criminal activity; 3) he/she has been helpful, is being helpful, or is likely to be helpful in the investigation or prosecution of the crime; and 4) the criminal activity must have violated the laws of the United States or occurred in the U.S.
Not every criminal activity makes a crime victim eligible to receive the benefits Congress intended. The statute requires that the criminal activity violate federal, state, or local criminal law such as murder, rape, torture, sexual exploitation, extortion to witness tampering, obstruction of justice, and false imprisonment, among others.
How Do You Apply For a U Visa?
To apply for a U visa, the crime victim must file a Petition for U Nonimmigrant Status (Form I-918) with U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS). The petition must include a certification of helpfulness from a certifying agency; i.e. a U Nonimmigrant Status Certification (Form I-918, Supplement B) from a federal, state, or local law enforcement official that demonstrates the petitioner has been helpful, is being helpful, or is likely to be helpful in the investigation or prosecution of the criminal activity. Further, either the head of the agency or a supervisor designated with the authority to issue certifications on behalf of the agency must sign the certification.
Victims of qualifying criminal activity may apply for U Visa status from inside or outside the U.S., which makes this type of immigration category different from other nonimmigrant classifications. There is no filing fee, although petitioners may have to pay a biometrics fee of $80.
What are the Advantages & Disadvantages of the U Visa?
USCIS may grant not more than 10,000 principal aliens U nonimmigrant status in any given fiscal year. This limitation, however, does not apply to spouses, children, parents, and unmarried siblings who are accompanying or following to join the principal alien victim. If the cap is reached in any fiscal year before all petitions are adjudicated, USCIS will create a waiting list that will help victims cooperating with law enforcement agencies stabilize their immigration status. Further, petitioners assigned to the waiting list will be given deferred action – that is, they will be eligible to apply for employment authorization or travel permits – until their petitions can be adjudicated after the start of the following fiscal year.
The duration of this nonimmigrant category is limited, however. The U nonimmigrant status cannot exceed four years. Extensions, on the other hand, are permitted upon certification from a certifying agency that the alien’s presence in the U.S. is required to assist in the investigation or prosecution of a qualifying criminal activity.
Finally, an individual who has held U nonimmigrant status eventually could apply for lawful permanent resident status in the U.S. The individual must have been physically present in the U.S. for a continuous period of at least three years since the date of admission as a U nonimmigrant, and the agency must determine that the individual’s continued presence in the country is justified on humanitarian grounds to ensure continuation of a cohesive family, or is otherwise in the public’s best interest.
Consult an Immigration Attorney to Determine Whether You Qualify for a U Visa
In sum, law enforcement agencies need the victims’ cooperation to prosecute the perpetrators. Victims who fear deportation, however, often do not choose to interact with law enforcement agents. Therefore, the U visa enables the government to combat crime with the help of individuals who lack lawful status in the U.S.
Immigrant crime victims are afforded safety and protection under the U Visa Program and should consult with a qualified immigration attorney to explore the eligibility requirements and potential benefits.
Nothing in this article should be taken as legal advice for an individual case or situation. The information is intended to be general and should not be relied upon for any specific situation. For legal advice, consult an attorney experienced in immigration law.