By Attorneys Robert L. Reeves and Eric Welsh
The “U” visa provides a broad range of immigration relief to victims of serious crimes who have cooperated in a criminal prosecution. The “U” visa can be granted to qualifying applicants even if the applicant is otherwise inadmissible to the United States because of an illegal entry, a prior deportation order, prior fraud, unlawful employment, a criminal record, participation in alien smuggling, and most other grounds of inadmissibility. Applicants can apply for the “U” visa if they are currently in deportation or removal proceedings, have already been ordered deported or removed, or have never been in immigration court but have no other lawful status in the United States. Once granted, the “U” visa holder may be eligible for adjustment of status to the United States as a permanent resident (green card holder), and eventually, citizenship in the United States.
To be eligible for a “U” visa, the applicant must be a “victim” of a violent or serious crime (such as domestic abuse, trafficking, rape, blackmail, or extortion), and must have suffered “substantial abuse,” including mental, psychological, or physical abuse. The applicant need not be a direct victim to the crime; for example, a family member of the victim may apply when the crime causes severe trauma to the family. A witness to a serious crime may also apply when the severity of the crime causes the witness to experience emotional or psychological trauma.
In addition, there must be a criminal investigation and prosecution of the crime, and the applicant must provide ongoing cooperation to the police and the prosecutors in bringing the wrongdoer to justice.
The “U” visa application requires a great deal of documentation and careful preparation to establish the applicant’s eligibility. The application must include a certificate from the law enforcement agency (such as the police or the district attorney), certifying that the applicant assisted in the prosecution of a serious crime. The law enforcement agency will normally require evidence of cooperation and proof that the crime is substantially serious, and applicants must make a persuasive and thorough request for certification.
The applicant must also provide documentation to show that he or she suffered substantial abuse, including medical documents and documents from mental health professionals. The applicant must also prepare a detailed statement regarding the abuse and the crime.
The Federal Government recognizes the importance of providing relief to victims of crimes that have suffered substantial abuse, and has therefore made this visa available to almost all qualifying applicants, regardless of immigration circumstances. An applicant for a “U” visa can request a waiver of virtually any and all grounds of inadmissibility, including prior immigration fraud, illegal entry, a visa overstay, violation of a deportation order, a false claim to citizenship, and reliance on welfare or other public benefits. For example, a “U” visa was recently granted to a woman from Mexico who was a victim of domestic violence, even though she had previously been detained and deported after entering the U.S. without inspection, illegally reentered with a false ID, helped one of her sons to enter the U.S. illegally, and relied upon welfare for her youngest child.
The “U” visa can be granted to a person who is in the U.S. without any lawful status, can be granted in immigration court, and can be granted even after an immigration judge has order the applicant deported or removed. The “U” visa is granted for four years, but the “U” visa holder can apply for a green card after only three years. Family members of the applicant—including the spouse, children, and brothers and sisters of the applicant (if the applicant is under 21)—can also be granted the “U” visa, and are also eligible to apply for a green card with the principal applicant.