In the new immigration climate in America, being a victim of a crime can also lead to deportation.
In 2015, Chicago-area resident and Mexican immigrant Genoveva Ramirez Laguna survived a home break-in during which the perpetrators physically assaulted her and her grandson. The responding authorities asked her for her help in the case, and under existing U.S. law, she qualified for a special visa that could lead to citizenship. She applied for the visa, called the U visa, in September 2016.
But the country changed in November 2016, when President Donald Trump was elected. As Ramirez waited years for her visa adjudication hearing, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office accelerated a deportation order against her, imposing a deadline of August 2017, according to a suit filed on her behalf by the National Immigrant Justice Center. The odds of receiving her U Visa adjudication were low. She was facing imminent deportation after more than 16 years in the U.S. and her eligibility by law to stay.
This is an increasingly common story with the immigration crackdown by ICE. But what is exactly going on?
What is the U Visa?
The U Visa allows victims of crimes to remain in or enter the U.S. as long as they agree to cooperate with law enforcement in the prosecution or investigation of the crime. Congress created the visa type in 2000 in connection with the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act.
It doesn’t apply to all crimes, though—applicants have to have been victims of a “qualifying” crime listed by the law, including crimes like abduction, rape, stalking or torture. They also have to prove substantial physical or mental harm resulting from that crime, among a number of other requirements, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. There is a cap of 10,000 U Visas per year for principal petitioners, though that cap doesn’t apply to eligible family members.
To file for the visa, petitioners have to complete Form I-918 and its Supplement B, which must be signed by a law enforcement official from the relevant agency. The petitioner also has to include a personal statement about the crime and its effect and evidence substantiating each eligibility requirement.
The petitioner has to go through a lengthy process of adjudication to obtain a U Visa, including certification that their help is necessary in the investigation by the law enforcement officer and a signature, before they obtain the special visa. When the number of applicants exceeds the 10,000 annual cap, the rest are placed on a waiting list. As of June 2018, the latest data available from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 128,079 primary petitioners were on a waiting list.
In the past two years, the Trump administration has continued to increase pressure on paths to immigration, including on the U Visa program. In July, the Associated Press reported cases of petitioners for U Visas being arrested while waiting for adjudication and deported with their cases still open.
The people being arrested do not necessarily have a criminal record. ICE officers have been reported as detaining the immigrants at courthouses where they come to testify or as part of their U Visa immigration proceedings and processing them for deportation. In two cases from 2017– one in North Carolina and another in El Paso, Texas — women who were petitioning a court for protective orders against abusive partners were reported to ICE and detained at the courthouse during the proceedings, according to ABC News and NPR news reports.
But in cases like Ramirez’s, she had a standing deportation order from 2006 that had been in process stemming from an earlier ruling. She had been corresponding with ICE, which granted her a stay of removal in 2016 until May 2017, when the organization suddenly ordered her removal, despite the ongoing U Visa application process, according to the suit. A judge later temporarily stayed the order to deport her, according to the National Immigrant Justice Center.
ICE officials have denied changing any deportation policies, saying they’re simply enforcing the law, according to news reports.
The increase focus on arresting people applying for U Visas after becoming a victim of a crime may lead to people staying quiet and not reporting crimes — especially domestic violence – and leaving criminals on the street. A survey conducted by the National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project and the American Civil Liberties Union found that law enforcement officers reported more difficulty in investigating crimes like domestic violence, human trafficking and sexual assault. About half of the judges surveyed reported that trials were interrupted because of an immigrant’s fear of coming to court, an increase from the number who reported the same in 2016.
Prosecutors report an even tougher challenge. In the survey, 82 percent of them reported that since President Trump took office, domestic violence has been underreported and harder to investigate and prosecute.
Immigrants facing deportation while applying for their U Visas shouldn’t be made criminals while trying to help investigators serve justice for a crime. Lawyers can help clarify your rights and work with the courts on immigration and deportation proceedings.