At a dinner party several months ago, I spoke with a woman who was curious about my work as an immigration attorney. The conversation ended with her asking: “So, you’re telling me that a person can just call 911, claim they were the victim of a crime, and then receive legal status in this country?”
Though the intricacies of the immigration system are vast, one basic statement remains true: There is nowhere for the average immigrant to get in line and simply receive their papers. That is not an option. For our clients who have suffered abuse and violence, that is still not an option.
As a staff attorney in the Victim Justice Program (VJP) at the Legal Clinic, we offer immigration law representation to women and men who have suffered domestic violence and other violent crimes. One of the most common immigration case types we handle is the U Visa. In order to qualify, an immigrant victim must suffer a specific kind of violent crime, report this crime to the authorities and, most importantly, cooperate fully with the investigation of the crime.
This final piece, the cooperation with law enforcement, is far from easy. It requires immeasurable bravery and trust by the victim. As a former deputy prosecutor, I have had significant exposure to the patterns and tendencies of victims of crime. To suffer violence at the hands of an intimate abuser or unknown perpetrator and then to report that violent person to the police is a terrifying experience in itself. To cooperate with the authorities as they undergo a criminal investigation and prosecution against the defendant is usually a nightmare for the victim. Serving as a State’s witness, by giving sworn statements and testifying in court while facing the abuser, is no easy task.
Immigrants are already subject to significant risk and scrutiny. By reporting a crime committed against them and fully cooperating with law enforcement, they become even more vulnerable. It is no surprise that many victims recant or bail on the criminal justice process entirely.
The steps I’ve outlined are the requirements just to qualify for the U Visa. After that, a U Visa client jumps through hoops to submit an application to USCIS. And then we wait. And wait, and wait. The current wait time for a U Visa in this country is between eight and ten years. That wait time increases with each passing year.
One of my U Visa clients, Julieta*, was the victim of repeated child molestation by her biological father. As a teenager, she reported the crimes to school officials, and the criminal prosecution process began. Three years after charges were filed, the case finally went to jury trial. Julieta faced her abuser in court and testified to the atrocities she endured. The defendant was found guilty of these crimes, and two years later, Julieta decided to reach out to us and pursue a U Visa. We filed her case in 2017, and we still have many years of waiting ahead of us. These crimes were committed against her when she was 14. If her application is approved, she will not receive her U Visa until she is at least 25 years old.
Even if a client does receive their U Visa eventually, that is still not the end. They must wait another three years and undergo an extensive application process to receive their green card and become a Legal Permanent Resident.
Another client, Sofia*, was recently granted a green card approval after receiving her U Visa in 2015 based on a violent armed robbery that she survived in 2008. Like so many, she underwent all of the agony and re-traumatization that this process often causes. She came into my office last month and wept tears of joy as she shared that she had the necessary papers and that she bought her first flight back to her home country. She was counting down the hours to hug her mother, whom she had not seen in fifteen years.
All of us are on a journey of restoration and reconciliation. For our VJP clients in particular, it is easy to see how crushing that journey can be. It is our great privilege here at the Clinic to walk alongside them and to advocate for them. John’s Gospel reminds us of Jesus’ promise: “Though the enemy comes to steal and kill and destroy, I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.”
The enemy has indeed come to steal and kill and destroy, often quite literally. Victims may arrive at our office beleaguered, desperate, and defeated, but they have truly overcome the odds. Because of their bravery and their hope, there is a new way forward.
Thankfully, the Gospel message is more inclusive than I can comprehend. All of the compassion, empathy, inclusion, and love I could possibly exhibit on my very best day pales in comparison to the extravagant love of Jesus and what he desires for all of us to both give and receive. There is room at the table for all of us. There is room for you and for me and for the woman I met at the dinner party and for Julieta and for Sofia. This is what drives me in my work at the Clinic in advocating for the most vulnerable.
My strongest desire for my clients and for all survivors and immigrants similarly situated is that God’s promise comes to fruition and that life for them will shift from one of mere survival to one of abundant joy.
To learn more about our Victim Justice Program, please visit our website.
*Names have been changed