shutterstock_123147769Congress created the U nonimmigrant visa with the passage of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act in October 2000. As the USCIS website explains, this legislation was intended to strengthen the ability of law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute cases of domestic violence, sexual assault, and trafficking of undocumented immigrants, among other crimes. These special nonimmigrant visas are for individuals who have suffered substantial mental and/or physical abuse as a result of a crime committed against them and who are willing to help law enforcement authorities in the investigation and prosecution of the crime.

As an immigration attorney, I have worked with immigrants, like Jose, for whom the U visa offers a way forward, free from fear. In 2006, Jose, a 30-year-old Hispanic laborer, made his way to work at 5:00 in the morning.  Within minutes of parking, an unknown man in a vehicle stopped next to his car and approached Jose. This man then took out a 12-gauge shotgun and without motive, shot Jose twice, striking him in the face and shoulder.

Bleeding profusely and literally holding half of his face in the palm of his hand, Jose stumbled toward his work site and made an urgent call for help. He was rushed to the hospital, where he would remain for the next two and half months. Jose suffered a shattered jaw, lost a large portion of his tongue, and suffered extreme emotional trauma, among other injuries.

Jose had to endure nine facial reconstruction surgeries, including jaw reconstruction because it was destroyed in the attack. To date, his speech is impaired and his face is unrecognizable. By the time Jose came to me, he was suffering from a deep depression, anger, fear, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

With kid gloves, empathy, and deep caring, our staff was able to convince him that applying for a U visa would not negatively affect him; like so many people I see in my practice, he was terrified immigration services would come looking for him if he applied.

Sadly, among the Hispanic community, a lack of knowledge and misinformation about the U visa is still widespread. But through community engagement and education, slowly but surely, more and more victims are applying for the 10,000 visas allotted each year. But there is still an obstacle that stands in the way of so many victims desperately seeking the peace of mind that comes along with permanent residence: the annual cap on U visas.  Just a few short months after the start of the fiscal year, the 10,000 cap on U visas was reached for the seventh year in a row. This means  that no one else who needs a U visa can receive one until the start of the next fiscal year on October 1, 2016. USCIS will continue to review applications in the meantime, but everyone who is found eligible will go on a waiting list and will be eligible to obtain deferred action and authorization to work.

Jose’s U visa was eventually approved and a few months ago, I had the honor of personally handing him his green card. His spouse, who never left his side throughout this tragic ordeal, is now also a lawful permanent resident as a derivative of the U visa for her husband.

The U visa is alive and well. Victims of violent crimes need to seek counsel, gather police reports and criminal court dispositions, if applicable, and explore the U visa as an option for relief for permanent residence in the United States. At the same time, the fact that the U visa cap has been reached every year since USCIS began issuing the visas in 2009 is proof that we need to do more. We must urge Congress to increase the cap on U visas for three reasons:  1) to insure that an undocumented victim continues to come forward and assists law enforcement in the detection and prosecution of criminals, 2) lifting the cap would also make the U visa process more streamlined and less burdensome and costly for the Department of Homeland Security, 3)  so that we can ensure that this important option is available to those who qualify, not based on an arbitrary number, but based on the need presented by cases across the country.

Written by Alma Rosa Nieto, Member, AILA Media Advocacy Committee