Bringing Victims Out of the Shadows

Staff Attorney Erica Harrigan

Staff Attorney Erica Harrigan


Marta* was just a teenager when she crossed the border into the United States. A single mother, she took a job working in fast food to support her family. Through this position, Marta became friends with a man. He treated her with kindness. He cared about her children. He wanted to share a life with her.

“But once they started to live together, things really started to go downhill,” says Victim Justice Program (VJP) Staff Attorney Erica Harrigan. “He was an alcoholic and couldn’t hold down a job.” Marta worked to provide for her entire family, including her new partner. She soon found herself pregnant, and his treatment of her only became worse. He was physically abusive and squandered their resources. “He drank away any money that they saved,” Erica says. Marta thought about getting help, but he threatened to kill her and to hurt her children if she tried to leave.

One day, Marta returned from work to find him and their baby missing. When he finally came home, he didn’t have the baby with him. “He was super drunk and just kept saying, ‘She’s gone,’ over and over again,” says Erica. Desperate, Marta contacted the police, and a search began—but they never found the baby. Marta’s abuser was charged with the murder of their child. “They interviewed him multiple times and his story kept changing,” Erica says. “[Marta] cooperated with the police and testified against him.” He was eventually convicted.

A year after this nightmare began, Marta learned of a form of immigration relief known as the U visa. She came to the Clinic and met Erica. “She was eligible because she was the victim of a qualifying crime,” Erica says. “For a U visa, if a person also reported the crime and is helpful to the investigation of that crime, they are eligible.” In fact, the first step of applying for a U visa involves obtaining a document from the police, a judge, or the Prosecutor’s Office that certifies the person’s cooperation during the investigation. This process alone can take six months. And once the U visa application is submitted to USCIS, it can take nearly a decade to be adjudicated.

The path ahead for Marta, borne of great tragedy, is also long. She likely has three years to wait before she is eligible for Deferred Action and a Work Permit. And then, she will still have to wait several more years before her application is approved or denied. Currently, Congress permits only 10,000 U visa applications to be processed annually and there is a backlog of nearly 100,000 more waiting in limbo. But if her application is eventually approved, Marta’s status will finally be secure. “The great thing about the U visa,” says Erica, “Is that it is a long road, but it is an eventual path to citizenship.”

Despite the extended wait, the U visa fills a much-needed gap for immigration relief. VJP Paralegal Karen Salazar says, “A lot of clients who are victims of crimes feel like they can’t report them to the authorities because of their legal status, so the U visa is very important.” Erica adds, “The whole point of the U visa is to bring people who are victims out of the shadows.”

To learn more about our Victim Justice Program, please visit our website.

*Name and details have been changed