Surviving & Thriving
How U-Visas can provide crucial escape route for victims of intimate partner violence
BY SARAH WENGERT
Summoning the courage to reach out for help is a challenge faced by many victims of domestic violence (DV) or intimate partner violence (IPV). But this already difficult situation is further compounded for immigrant women whose lack of legal immigration status can be used to further intimidate them into keeping quiet and staying put with their abusers for fear of deportation.
One very important opportunity for women confronting this type of circumstance is the U-Visa, a special non-immigrant visa designed to help individuals who have been victims of serious crimes, including intimate partner violence.
According to Shireen S. Rajaram, PhD., faculty in the Department of Health Promotions in the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC), the U-Visa was created under the U.S. Violence Against Women Act (VAWA 2000) and the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act (TVPA 2000).
“[The U-Visa] is designed to provide lawful immigration status to noncitizen crime victims who are willing to assist authorities in investigating crimes,” says Rajaram. “The goal is to encourage immigrant victims of crimes to report and cooperate with law enforcement.”
A U-Visa provides an individual with work authorization, a social security number, and the ability to obtain a driver’s license — crucial elements for a woman who is attempting to leave an abusive situation and launch a new life with personal agency, opportunity, and stability.
“U-Visas help women trapped in violent relationships break free from their abuser,” says Jossy Rogers, program director and full Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) accredited representative, Catholic Charities Immigration Legal Assistance Services. “After working with law enforcement to prosecute their abusers, they are able to obtain immigration status. This grant of status allows them the ability to work lawfully and to obtain a social security number. These key items grant a U-Visa recipient the tools needed to support herself without relying on an abusive partner.”
According to Rajaram, the U-Visa allows for temporary legal status for up to four years through deferred action. After three years of continuous and lawful presence with a U-Visa, women can apply for permanent residency or a ‘green card.’ After five years with lawful permanent residency status, they can then apply for citizenship. The annual cap for U-Visas is set at 10,000 per fiscal year.
“The U-Visa is important because it builds a bridge between immigrant communities who are fearful of reporting crimes and law enforcement agencies who need assistance from the public to investigate crimes,” says Elisha Novak, operations director, Justice For Our Neighbors Nebraska (JFON-NE). “The U-Visa is also particularly beneficial for women who are survivors of intimate partner violence as they experience upward social mobility as a result of leaving abusive relationships and becoming economically self-sufficient.”
Rajaram, whose research interest is in health disparities, particularly those involving women, says that the largest proportion of U-Visa recipients are victims of intimate partner violence. She says intimate partner violence is “a critical public health issue affecting our communities, locally and globally.”
“In situations of IPV, the lack of legal immigration status is often used as a tool of power and control against women,” Rajaram says. “We should note that immigrant women’s vulnerability within the context of IPV is based not only on gender but on the intersection of their other identities, including race/ethnicity, language, immigration status, socioeconomic status, etcetera.”
While the U-Visa is an extremely helpful option for noncitizen victims of intimate partner violence, the application process is not an easy nor swift one. Even once a U-Visa is obtained, years of subsequent efforts are needed to attain citizenship.
Nancy Cardoza, domestic violence staff attorney at JFON-NE, says her organization starts by meeting with a potential client, obtaining as much information as possible regarding the crime(s) committed against them, and establishing consent to contact law enforcement. The staff also makes referrals to various local service providers who may assist the victim in other areas.
“When we meet with them for the first time, we go through the normal intake process. We inquire about their immigration history along with what type of assistance they are seeking,” Cardoza says. “Because most people have not heard about the U-Visa, we also inquire about any crime they have been a victim of. If [they] have been the victim of a qualifying crime we notify them about the possibility of applying for a U-Visa and walk them through the process. We then start by obtaining police reports, court dispositions, and any other evidence of the crime and submit form I-918 Supplement B, the U-Certification document (a required form for the U-Visa) to law enforcement. The prosecuting attorney, or the judge on the case, must certify that the victim was, is, or is likely to be helpful in the investigation or prosecution of the crime. Once the U-Certification form is signed we have the client write a personal statement in their own words about the crime they were a victim of and how this has affected them. We then file the U-Visa along with an application to waive any inadmissibility grounds.”
Rogers, who describes a similar process for assisting victims in applying for U-Visas at Catholic Charities, says that each client’s process can last anywhere from 12 to 24 months.
Novak, Rajaram and Rogers, along with co-authors Ana Barrios and Sandra Leal, released a report in March 2015 titled Women’s Voices: Latinas, Intimate Partner Violence & Immigration Policy (U-Visa). The project, partially funded by the Women’s Fund of Omaha, was a collaborative effort between UNMC’s College of Public Health and community-based organizations, including the Juan Diego Center, JFON-NE, Catholic Charities Immigration Legal Assistance Services, and Women’s Center for Advancement.
The study aimed to explore the experience of Latinas who have received their U-Visa (with a focus on women who’ve received their U-Visa under the TVPA 2000), to understand the associated benefits and challenges, and to provide evidence-based results that identify any gaps in services.
“To be able to better design interventions to assist women recipients of the U-Visa, we decided to conduct a research project, gather qualitative data, and interview both women recipients of the U-Visa and service providers who work with these women,” Rajaram says.
The choice to focus on Latinas came down to simple regional demographics. “Any woman, irrespective of race or ethnicity, who is undocumented and is experiencing domestic violence may be eligible to apply for [the U-Visa]. Since we have a large immigrant Latino community, this is the largest racial/ ethnic group that apply for this visa in Nebraska,” Rajaram says.
Novak adds that while JFON-NE served individuals from across 38 different countries in 2014, the majority of its U-Visa applications were for women from Latin American countries, including Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
The Women’s Voices report identifies benefits to U-Visa recipients that include improved mental health and economic well-being, an upsurge in selfesteem and hope, and decreased exploitation, as well as the ability to contribute more to their community. And, while U-Visas provide an amazing opportunity to women in need of them, the report also identifies challenges, including stigma, uncertainty and economic hardship, among other issues.
Cardoza has seen such benefits and challenges firsthand through her work at JFON-NE, assisting individuals with the lengthy U-Visa process, from intake to application and beyond.
Some challenges Cardoza has seen arise while pursuing a U-Visa for her clients include dealing with the trauma of abuse without consistent access to bilingual counselors, financial hardships because they are not given a work permit immediately after filing for the U-Visa (and also due to a lack of access to public assistance), and even abusers who may return to convince clients to drop charges against them.
But despite challenges faced by women who apply for and/or receive a U-Visa, the benefits Cardoza and others describe win out for most in the long run.
“When we first notify our clients of their U-Visa approval, the first thing I always notice is their sense of relief,” Cardoza says. “Once victims, these women are now allowed to work lawfully in this country and provide for themselves and their families. We have had single mothers go on to become successful business owners, and others who have finally been able to reunite themselves with their children thanks to the U-Visa. We’ve also seen women who once thought they could not make it on their own automatically gain a sense of empowerment.”
Rogers echoes the essential, life-changing benefits that occur for intimate partner violence survivors who obtain U-Visas, including enhanced protection from abusers and financial independence.
“All of these factors significantly improve conditions for survivors and provide a platform to live healthier and fuller lives in a robust community,” she says. “We see greater self-esteem and progress toward personal goals as a result of the U-Visa, including saving for a home and receiving a GED or attending college courses. Ultimately, a U-Visa restores hope for a recipient and family after surviving personal trauma.”
Rogers also shares the success story of “Elizabeth” from El Salvador, who, unable to find work years ago in her home country made the heartbreaking choice out of financial necessity to leave her small children in the care of their grandmother. After coming to the United States in search of work that would enable her to send money home to support her children, Elizabeth fell into an abusive relationship in which her boyfriend injured her so severely that she nearly died from stab wounds.
“As a victim of felonious assault perpetrated by her ex-boyfriend, Elizabeth qualified for U-Visa because she gave police the information they needed to convict him of the crime,” Rogers says.
About five years ago, the Catholic Charities program helped Elizabeth apply for and obtain her UVisa, paving a path to greater stability for Elizabeth, who then quickly obtained stable employment, taking an incredible step toward economic independence.
“When Elizabeth applied for the U-Visa, she included her children, Abigail and Manuel, who still lived in Guatemala, as family beneficiaries to the application,” Rogers says. “We helped her with the arduous process of providing all necessary documentations, permissions, and correspondence with the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City. Finally, her children were able to join her in the United States. After three years with the U-Visa, Elizabeth was eligible to apply for her permanent residence card. Our program assisted in the green card application and requested a fee waiver with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (for the $1,070 cost of her application). Last year, her children were finally approved for their lawful permanent resident cards.”
Rogers says Elizabeth was moved to tears when she found out that her children had also been approved. With lawful permanent resident status, they were able to travel to see their family in Guatemala — more than 10 years after Elizabeth had last seen her siblings and mother. Elizabeth and her children are now on the pathway to United States citizenship.
In working on the Women’s Voices report, Rajaram says she “was struck by the tenacity and commitment of women to be the ‘drivers of their destiny’ to provide their families with an opportunity toward enhanced social, emotional and economic stability.”
“I was also struck by the extent of stigma pertaining to intimate partner violence to the point that women were unwilling to share the good news of obtaining the U-Visa,” she says. “To do so would require disclosure that they were a survivor of domestic violence, and they perceived this to be a stigmatized status. As a result, fewer women are made aware of information pertaining to immigration relief for undocumented IPV victims, since this information is not openly discussed or widely distributed.”
“I think the greatest impact the U-Visa has had on our clients is their ability to share their testimony with their friends and family members,” says Cardoza. “Their testimony alone has encouraged many other victims out there to seek help; to not stay quiet, and to report crimes.”
Novak adds that it’s highly important for women who receive the U-Visa to share their experience and to “help to start the conversation about the prevalence of intimate partner violence and help to diminish the stigma that is attached to it.”
One of the recommendations of the Women’s Voices report is to “increase community awareness of IPV and rights of women,” an objective which will hopefully serve to lessen the stigma associated with intimate partner violence, freeing more women to share their stories without shame.
Other report recommendations include increasing community awareness of support services and of immigration relief for undocumented intimate partner violence survivors, plus providing additional wraparound supportive services with increased interagency collaboration as a tactic to achieve the latter. In addition to JFON-NE’s aim to assist women in all steps of their legal journey, Novak emphasizes the importance of collaboration in this area.
“We collaborate with other organizations and make appropriate referrals for additional support, such as counseling, educational classes and more,” she says. “We continue to support women once they obtain the U-Visa by mostly working on systematic barriers. The [Women’s Voices] study was also an important step in pinpointing barriers that U-Visa applicants face, but also in identifying the gaps in services.”
So, while there is clearly more work to be done on various levels to strengthen U-Visa services for noncitizen victims of intimate partner violence, one action we can all take is simply to talk about it and spread knowledge of the issue.
“It is important to increase awareness in the community about the U-Visa so women who are undocumented and experiencing domestic violence know that they have legal rights and options available to them,” Rajaram says. “Also, it is important to come together as a community and provide supportive services to women, including safe housing, bilingual counseling, ESL classes, job skills training, [and more] so they are able to get back on their feet quickly.”
Click here to view the full Women’s Voices report.