By Anthony Woodhams
There are a whole host of reasons why— additional barriers like poverty, racial discrimination, financial dependency, a lack of awareness, and cultural factors stop undocumented victims from reporting crimes like theft, blackmail, and even domestic violence.
But the main reason: a fear of deportation.
That’s primarily why the U-Visa and the Violence Against Women Act (“VAWA”) exist. The U-Visa is a visa designed specifically for immigrant victims to report crimes against them without fearing deportation. It’s a provision within the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), passed by Congress nearly two decades ago.
In 2018, though, immigration policy is anything but cut-and-dry. Changes to current immigration laws are happening daily. And we’re living in an environment ripe for misinformation, including misinformation about the U-Visa program.
Here are 3 myths to know about U-Visas:
Myth 1: The U-Visa Program has been Terminated
First and foremost, the U-Visa program still exists. In fact, U-Visa applications are one of the most common types of immigration applications. Last year, over 36,000 applications for the U-Visa were submitted. With a cap on the program at 10,000 applicants, it’s not surprising that each year it hits its quota.
But new immigration policies have confused a lot of immigrants about whether the program even exists anymore.
In January of 2017, the White House issued an executive order vowing to get rid of “classes or categories” of undocumented immigrants. The order sent shockwaves through immigrant communities nationwide. Does that mean programs like the U-Visa program will cease to exist? After all, U-Visa recipients can be a category of undocumented immigrants.
Luckily, just last week, the White House issued clarity around programs like the U-Visa program. According to a March 20th press release, undocumented victims and witnesses are still “eligible for certain immigration benefits, like the U-Visa and T-Visa, to encourage their cooperation in reporting crime.”
So, yes, these are uncertain times. But for now, the U-Visa program is still here.
Myth 2: Your Abuser Can Have You Deported
This myth is pervasive within the immigrant community. And there is good reason: in almost 25% of U-Visa cases, abusers attempt to have the victim deported.
To be clear: It is against the law for immigration agents to act on a tip from an abuser to have a victim deported.
Remember, the U-Visa is supposed to be an avenue that encourages victims to report their abuse. Lawmakers, at the very least, have generally understood that the threat of deportation is an enormous barrier for victims seeking help. So they have included specific provisions, including guidelines for federal immigration officials and exceptions for when a victim is asked to testify in court (see Myth #3).
That being said, there have been reports recently of officials ignoring these provisions.
Many in the immigrant community are familiar with the case of Irvin Gonzalez, an undocumented immigrant woman arrested at a Texas courthouse after seeking protection from an abusive partner. According to a court filing by Gonzalez, ICE agents acted on a tip from her abuser to arrest her. Gonzalez’ deportation case is still pending and it’s unclear whether or not she will face deportation.
Myth 3: You Are Required to Testify in Court Against your Abuser
“But wait,” you might be thinking. “If I report my abuser, won’t law enforcement require me to testify in court?”
Not necessarily. VAWA has provisions that allow a victim to forego testifying in court in cases where it may be too dangerous. Yes, you are required to cooperate with law enforcement to qualify for a U-Visa, and they have to certify your application, but this doesn’t always mean you have to testify in open court, especially when it could compromise your own safety.
According to the DHS, there is “no requirement for the victim to testify at a trial to be eligible for a U or T Visa.” However, the guidelines go on to say: “If the victim is requested to testify, he or she cannot unreasonably refuse to cooperate with the certifying law enforcement agency. If the victim unreasonably refuses to testify, the agency or official should notify USCIS and may withdraw the previously signed Form I-918B or Form I-914B.”
Navigating what does and does not qualify as “unreasonable” can be difficult, and often is best handled by an experienced immigration attorney. If you are at all unsure, consult an immigration lawyer.
The U-Visa process is sometimes the only avenue immigrant victims have for reporting a crime or abuse while avoiding deportation. It’s often an emotional and stressful process. But when navigated correctly, it can be an important first step for victims trying to recover and move on with their lives.
If you are an immigrant considering a U-Visa, contact Stilwell & Slatton Immigration Law to discuss your options.