In 2000, Congress created the U visa to provide protection from deportation and work authorization for crime victims brave enough to come forward against the individuals who violently abused them.
The U visa was designed to help non-citizens who are victims of crimes in the U.S., such as trafficking, domestic violence and sexual assault, and have suffered substantial mental or physical abuse. Congress intended for them to receive a U visa within months of applying, but applicants now wait an average of five years for the promised protection.
During the extraordinarily long wait, U visa applicants — already struggling against the trauma left in the wake of violent crime — must fight grinding poverty and keep the government’s push to deport them at bay.
Many do not make it. Some are deported during the wait, some give up hope and return to their home country.
At the Center for Legal Advocacy in Charlotte, where I direct the Immigrant Justice Program, we have a client named Santos who has a young son. I am not using her full name to protect her identity. Her story illustrates by this five-year wait matters to all of us — why it matters to communities across North Carolina.
Santos called the police after 14 years of abuse that she and her children endured by her boyfriend.
One night, Santos’ boyfriend beat her with his fists and an electrical cord. Bleeding and bruised, she thought her boyfriend intended to kill her. The police arrested the boyfriend and a criminal prosecution ensued.
We filed Santos’ U visa application in December 2015, identifying a son who still lived with her as a derivative applicant. Then, the wait began. Living with the uncertainty of her U visa application status, Santos struggled as a single parent to support her family with a cleaning job that paid only $8.50 an hour. She found the job through an acquaintance who agreed to look the other way at Santos’ immigration status. Santos had no other options. She supplemented her meager income with frequent visits to the local food pantries.
In February 2019, the ground opened underneath Santos when an immigration judge ordered her son’s deportation. By then he was 16. His pending U visa application legally afforded him no protection against removal. As a result, a teenager with a solid claim to status was about to be forced to leave his family and resettle in Honduras.
Our office successfully filed an appeal of the deportation order, which allowed Santos’ son to remain in the United States pending his appeal. Other respondents are not as fortunate. Only 20% of immigrant respondents in the Charlotte Immigration Court are represented by legal counsel. Without legal counsel, it is virtually impossible for an individual to file an appeal.
Five years of waiting ended in December 2020 when Santos and her son received their U visas. Santos proudly presented her work permit to her employer, and her hourly wage immediately increased from $8.50 to $15.50. Her visits to the food pantries stopped. Within months, she was able to sign a contract to purchase her home. Her increased salary and the Social Security Number afforded by the U visa made it all possible.
Santos was lucky to make it to the end of her five-year wait. Many applicants do not share that experience.
It is inexcusable that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services takes an average of five years to provide violent crime victims the protection that Congress intended them to have within months of applying for the U visa. It is our hope that the two federal lawsuits filed by the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, Legal Aid of North Carolina, the North Carolina Justice Center, and private attorney Brad Banias will put an end to the delays.
Approximately 170,000 immigrants in the United States are waiting — like Santos did — for adjudication of their U visa applications. These individuals are already cooperating with law enforcement; it’s required to get a U visa. The long delays put them — and our communities — in danger.
Sharon Dove is a Charlotte attorney who is Director of Immigrant Justice Program at the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy.