A blog about U.S. immigration matters by Paul Szeto, a former INS attorney and an experienced immigration attorney and counsel. Contact Info: 732-632-9888, http://www.1visa1.com/ (All information is not legal advice and is subject to change without prior notice.)

Friday, January 6, 2012

U Visa – An important tool for crime victims to obtain legal status

Many immigrants in the United States are hesitant to approach police and other law enforcement officers when they become crime victims. For people who are in the U.S. without legal status, they try to avoid contacts with police officers for fear that their illegal status may be exposed. Even legal immigrants are sometimes afraid to approach police in the U.S. because of cultural differences and language barriers. Most of them do not know that there exists a special visa designed for victims of certain crimes called the U visa. The purpose of the U visa is to provide eligible victims of crimes with temporary nonimmigrant status so that they may assist law enforcement agencies in criminal investigations and prosecutions.

Congress created the U visa in The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act (VTVPA) of 2000 to encourage victims to report crimes and help law enforcement officials to investigate and prosecute criminal activities regardless of the victims’ immigration status. Women and children are especially vulnerable to certain crimes such as human trafficking, sexual assault and domestic violence. If a U visa petition is approved, the petitioner receives nonimmigrant status to live and work in the United States for up to four years. Subsequently, qualified recipients may apply to adjust status to become a lawful permanent resident (green card) after three years of continuous presence in the U.S. as a U visa holder. There are other eligibility requirements for a green card as well, including the ongoing duty to cooperate with law enforcement in the investigation or prosecution of the qualifying crime. Additionally, other immediate family members of U visa recipients may also be eligible to live and work in the United States as derivative U visa recipients. These family members include: Unmarried children under the age of 21 of principal U visa recipients; Spouses of principal U visa recipients; Parents of principal U visa recipients under age 21; and Unmarried siblings under 18 years old of principal U visa recipients under age 21.

To apply for a U visa, one must file the USCIS Form I-918, Petition for U Nonimmigrant Status (Form I-918), and submit it to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) with all relevant documentation, including Form I-918B, the U visa law enforcement certification. The Form I-918B is a requirement for the U visa and must be certified by a qualified law enforcement agency including a federal, state, local law enforcement agency, prosecutor, judge, or other authority that has the responsibility for the investigation or prosecution of a qualifying crime. Essentially, the law enforcement agency must certify that the petitioner was a victim of a qualifying crime, has specific knowledge and details of crime, has been, is being, or is likely to be helpful to law enforcement in the detection, investigation, or prosecution of the qualifying crime. Qualifying crimes includes qualify for the U visa including murder, robbery, abduction, rape, sexual assault, kidnaping, incest, perjury, prostitution, obstruction of justice, etc.

The U visa is an extremely important incentive for victims of crimes to come forward to testify against the perpetrators. Because of the complexity of U visa petitions, applicants should seek assistance from a legal representative or victim advocate. It is important to know that certification by a law enforcement agency does not guarantee approval of a U visa. The USCIS must determine if other requirements of the U visa are met including whether the applicant has suffered substantial physical or mental abuse as a result of the subject criminal activity. However for victims of serious crimes without legal status especially women and children, the U visa may be their only hope to fight back.

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