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Many survivors of domestic violence hesitate to report their abusers because of embarrassment, financial concerns and the fear of retribution. For undocumented immigrants in the U.S., another threat looms even larger.
“The main reason that immigrant survivors of domestic violence don’t come forward is the fear of deportation,” says Andrea Cárcamo, a former policy analyst and legislative liaison at Casa de Esperanza, a national domestic violence resource center for organizations working with Latinos.
Luckily, the U visa program overseen by U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) is designed to encourage undocumented survivors of domestic violence to report abuse and, if they meet criteria, also allows them to remain in the United States.
Which Victims are Eligible?
The nonimmigrant visa program is open to victims of certain criminal activities that happened inside the U.S.—including domestic violence—that caused substantial physical or mental abuse. To be eligible, victims also must have information about the criminal activity and be helpful in the investigation or prosecution of the crime. Victims who normally would not be admissible to the U.S. (due to breaking immigration laws, having committed crimes or experiencing certain health problems themself) can apply for a waiver.
“Being ‘helpful’ is a nuanced concept,” says Cárcamo. “There are misconceptions that the perpetrator must have been arrested or convicted, but that’s not true. Even in cases where law enforcement decides not to move forward or take a case to court, the survivor was already helpful by reporting the crime.”
Because there are forms involved—the petition, a certification signed by local law enforcement, a waiver for victims who otherwise would not be admissible to the U.S.—and a specific order in which to proceed, Cárcamo recommends contacting an advocate or attorney for assistance. Such professionals will also be familiar with specific language that can bolster a petition, especially because sometimes the federal definition of a crime isn’t the same as a state’s definition. ( Click here for a directory of service providers with experience working with immigrant victims of domestic violence, which is searchable by state.)
Valid for Four Years
Once U nonimmigrant status is granted, it’s valid for four years, with extensions in specific circumstances. After three years, petitioners who meet certain requirements can apply for a temporary visa, Cárcamo says.
Only 10,000 U visas are granted each year to principal petitioners, and Cárcamo says that cap has been met in just the first few months for the past few years. When that happens, the USCIS creates a waiting list of all eligible petitioners who are awaiting a final decision and a U visa. Those petitioners are granted “deferred status” and are eligible to apply for work authorization—on another form—while they wait for additional U visas to become available.
“A U visa meets all the requirements that could put a survivor and their children on a path to citizenship,” Cárcamo says. “It also helps bring immigrant survivors out of the shadows and build trust with law enforcement, to help find those who should be put behind bars.”
For more information about escaping domestic violence as an undocumented immigrant in the U.S., read, “ Protections for Undocumented Immigrants.”
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