In October of 2007, I found myself in a domestic violence shelter, sitting across the table from a woman from Mexico. She had arrived at the shelter the evening before. She did not speak English, and she was scared. Her partner was in jail for having beaten her in front of their son, but she was not sure whether she wanted to press charges. The shelter advocates had asked me to come to talk to her about getting a protective order and evaluating her immigration options.
For the next hour, I learned her story, and then I explained to her about a new visa – the regulations for it had only gone into effect a couple of weeks before – called a “U Visa.” This visa was for people just like her – immigrants who had been the victims of crimes. But to qualify, she had to press charges and assist in the investigation and prosecution of the crime against her.
She did not want to be in the shelter. She felt weak, powerless, and vulnerable. In fact, she would not have called the police on her abuser out of fear of immigration enforcement against her and her family. It was a neighbor who had called. But she found within herself the strength to move forward. She pressed charges, and we were able to obtain a U Visa that brought her newfound peace and security.
This story has played out repeatedly in the years I have been practicing law. I have watched my clients come out of the shadows and help law enforcement, despite their fear. This is exactly what Congress intended when it established the humanitarian protections known as the U Visa, the T Visa, and the Violence Against Women Act Self-Petition, among others. Congress realized after study and hearings that because of the particularly vulnerable status of immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, many survivors of domestic violence, human trafficking, and other crimes suffer immensely. Yet they often do not come forward to press charges against their abusers and captors.
Congress decided that getting a perpetrator of violence off the streets benefited society as a whole. In fact, Congress found this benefit to be so great, that the law creating the U Visa, for victims of certain crimes who cooperate with law enforcement, passed almost unanimously by Congress. Only one congressman voted against it.
Now, because of an unnecessary and cruel policy change by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) – an agency which is supposed to function as the immigration “benefits” arm of the Department of Homeland Security, these survivors are once again at risk. Until now, immigrant crime victims could move forward knowing that they would not be deported if their case was denied, unless they posed a serious risk to the nation’s safety. As of November 19, 2018, that is no longer the case. USCIS’s new policy means that survivors whose cases are denied and who do not have any other immigration status could be placed into deportation proceedings. This shift typifies USCIS’s growing prioritization of immigration enforcement over immigration benefits – a focus at odds with the agency’s statutory mission.
A denied case does not mean someone is not the victim of horrific violence or of human trafficking. It could mean, merely, that a bona fide survivor lacked the expertise to demonstrate her eligibility to USCIS—a common occurrence in complicated immigration cases when vulnerable applicants often do not have attorneys helping them—or did not satisfy some other requirement for getting status.
This new policy will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on the numbers of immigrants who will come forward to report crimes against them and apply for humanitarian protection. Cities with large immigrant populations have already seen a reduction in reports of domestic violence over the past two years, following implementation of the current administration’s harsh immigration enforcement policies. Faced with the prospect of deportation and separation from their families, many survivors of crimes feel that alerting the authorities is not a tenable option. This not only means that they and their children are continuing to live in unsafe conditions, but that a perpetrator of a violent crime continues to live free to attack someone else.
Furthermore, by deporting survivors who have worked with law enforcement, including in many cases testifying in open court against their abuser or rapist, we are re-traumatizing them and potentially deporting them to harm or death, if their abuser has also been deported or if their trafficker lives abroad.
Congress made a deal with immigrants – help us get the bad guys off the streets, and we will make sure that you and your family are protected. USCIS is now breaking that promise.
If I had not been able to assure my clients that they could apply for protection without a fear of deportation even if their case was denied, many of my clients would never have come forward. They would not have reported the crimes they were victims of or cooperated with the police. In the end, these protections are not just for the benefit of the immigrant receiving them. Getting a rapist, abuser, or trafficker off the streets benefits us all. Deporting innocent survivors is beneath us as a country. It benefits no one.