When Yaneth Moreno (a pseudonym) submitted her U visa application in November 2014, she thought the hard part was over.
Moreno suffered years of abuse from her husband and father of her four children, fearing retaliation from him if she ever called the police. When she finally found the courage to file a report against him and began to work with a local women’s shelter, she learned that she could qualify for a form of immigration relief called a U visa.
The U visa is available to victims of qualifying crimes who have suffered substantial harm and who have cooperated in the investigation or prosecution of the crime against them. Moreno, who wanted to forget the history of abuse, realized that the U visa might be the only opportunity for her to gain legal status in the United States, where she has lived for 16 years.
Moreno contacted the Texas Civil Rights Project and began working with our Immigrant Victim Services Program, which provides direct legal services to immigrant survivors of abuse in rural Texas. During the next several months, we worked with Moreno, her shelter advocate, and local law enforcement to prepare her U visa application.
As part of the application process, she spent several draining months recounting and documenting her traumatizing experience. When Moreno’s U visa application was ready, she submitted it with high hopes of soon having permission to work and live in the United States. Unfortunately, after two years she is still waiting for her application to be reviewed and placed on the waitlist to receive an available visa. This means she cannot obtain the provisional “deferred action status,” which would protect her from being sent back to Mexico, and the right to apply for a work permit.
Moreno is no better off today than she was the day she sent off her U visa application.
To make whatever money she can, she takes under-the-table jobs for meager and inconsistent pay. She cannot obtain a driver’s license in Texas, and she puts herself at great risk of deportation every time she drives her four U.S. citizen children, all of whom are under the age of 12, back and forth from school.
Even though Moreno’s husband constantly insulted her, choked her, and once beat her so badly she went to the hospital, she now says she often feels guilty for leaving him. Although Moreno’s abuser was undocumented, he had a good job working on a local farm. He owned their home. Her children each had their own rooms, and they never worried about the next meal. Moreno sometimes wonders if she simply should have endured the violence for their sakes.
Created in 2000 as a part of the pre-existing Violence Against Women Act, the U visa program allows only 10,000 such visas for victims of violence and their family members per fiscal year.
For the past seven years, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has met the statutory maximum and put the remaining cases considered approvable on a waitlist until visas become available. Meanwhile, the backlog of applications and delay in processing time continues to grow. Processing delays are so great that USCIS no longer provides a projection for how long the process will take.
On October 1, new visas became available for fiscal year 2016-2017—but only 10,000 of them. However, there are at least 135,641 immigrant victims of violence with pending cases. Individuals who received visas in October likely submitted their applications in 2014, leaving them in years of limbo, just like Moreno. Because Moreno’s application has not even been placed on the waitlist, she remains without any protection from deportation and without the ability to legally work.
The backlog is a problem that USCIS could have seen coming: Each year since the application was first created, the number of U visas submitted has increased substantially as more and more law enforcement agencies have built stronger relationships with the immigrant communities in their jurisdictions.
The bottom line is that the delays and waitlists have real-world implications.
The U visa was meant to be Moreno’s road to a better life with her family. She had thought about the job at the local factory she could get once she had a work permit—the pay wouldn’t be great, but it would be enough. She had imagined running errands in town without the fear that a simple traffic stop could result in her deportation. She had also allowed herself to dream about someday becoming a legal permanent resident (LPR), because she knew that an approved U visa could, after three years, allow her to adjust her status and become an LPR. Moreno knew she had a long road ahead of her, but she believed that receiving immigration status would empower her and her children to move on from the violence in their past.
Delays in U visa processing are not only unacceptable, but also damaging to an already vulnerable population whose health and well-being are put at risk as they are in constant fear of deportation. USCIS must take more effective steps to address the U visa backlog in order to provide survivors and their families with the benefits they deserve.