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U visas: What are they and why is there a backlog?

by | Aug 29, 2023 | Immigration & Global Mobility Practice

Created to crack down on crime perpetrated against vulnerable undocumented immigrants, the U visa program was meant to encourage reporting and cooperation by noncitizens to apprehend criminals. Not only would victims feel more confident to report crimes against them without fear of deportation, but law enforcement could reward their assistance with a U visa.

Launched in conjunction with the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act of 2000, self-imposed operational challenges have plagued the program. An annual cap of U visas was set at 10,000, and there is currently a backlog of 300,000 applications, with applicants waiting two to seven or more years while floating in a difficult noncitizen limbo.

USCIS reportedly opened a new visa processing center to help with the backlog, but an alert on the USCIS U visa info page says that the Vermont Service Center shut down in April of this year, leaving only the Nebraska Service Center.

Why the backlog puts noncitizens at risk

Undocumented immigrants face daily challenges while they wait for the legal process to play out. Lawyers for people applying for U visas usually advise their clients to stay in the country during the application process, which, again, could take many years.

In addition to being easy targets for crime, domestic violence and trafficking, they must find a way to earn money without a work permit to feed and house themselves while they wait. This results in the victims finding under-the-table doorstop jobs, which are almost always low-paid, backbreaking work, where wage theft and sexual harassment are common and asking for a day off could result in firing.

A 2021 change in the program was supposed to make it easier for applicants to acquire work visas, but according to victims’ lawyers, this application can also take years to process.

The waiting and the assistance don’t guarantee a U visa

Again, to be eligible for a U visa, one must help law enforcement apprehend whoever perpetrated the crime. But there is no standard definition of what degree of help is necessary to earn a visa, which has resulted in wildly different interpretations of “help,” varying by state, city and county.

In some instances, law enforcement doesn’t grant a U visa unless police capture the perpetrator as if the victim has any control over the effort and competency of their local agency. In other instances, even full cooperation and a captured criminal don’t result in a U visa.

There is talk of increasing the visa cap and developing ways to track visas and the inevitable fraud accompanying such programs. However, as of this writing, nothing substantial has been approved.