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U-visas gaining momentum

Program gives temporary legal status to undocumented abuse victims who help police investigate crimes. Supporters want it to grow, while foes seek tighter controls.

September 26, 2011|By Paloma Esquivel, Los Angeles Times
  • Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park), above, has pushed the Power Act, which would expand U-visas to include victims of labor exploitation and increase the number of such visas to 30,000 annually.
Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park), above, has pushed the Power Act, which… (Vince Compagnone / Los Angeles…)

For years Norma endured her husband's physical and mental abuse. But the undocumented mother of five finally decided to call police when her 10- and 11-year-old daughters told her that their father had sexually abused them.

"In that moment," said Norma, who asked that her last name not be used to protect her children, "I felt — not scared, mostly I just felt angry at myself for hiding so many things, for letting it get to that point."

She was in deportation proceedings at the time and just days away from a hearing that could have seen her removed from the country.

Lawyers with Legal Aid Foundation Los Angeles helped get her deportation deferred until the U-visa program, which provides temporary legal status to abuse victims who help police investigate crimes, took effect in 2008. In that time, Norma's husband was sentenced to six years in prison for a forcible lewd act on a child under 14 and Norma and her children secured the right to stay in the country long term.

The U-visa program got off to a sluggish start, with advocates complaining that immigration officials were slow to approve applications. It grew quickly, however, with the help of outreach efforts, including local visits by officials with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

But with increasing awareness has come increasing demand. In the three years that the program has been in place, more than 30,000 applications have been filed and more than 25,600 have been approved. Soon after a visit to Los Angeles this month to promote the program, immigration officials announced that all 10,000 available U-visas had been issued for the fiscal year, which ends Friday.

"We can see the volume already. At some point it's going to be an issue," said Betty Song, an attorney with the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles. "I don't know what purpose the cap serves, because if people are eligible, they are eligible."

Since last year, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Reps. George Miller (D-Martinez) and Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) have pushed the Power Act, which would expand U-visas to include victims of labor exploitation and increase the number of such visas to 30,000 annually. But the legislation has gained little traction in Congress. Others hope an increase will be included in separate legislation to benefit crime victims.

Proponents of immigration restriction, such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and the Center for Immigration Studies, said visas for crime victims should be further limited to the most extreme cases.

"The historic pattern with these special interest visa set-asides is that once they become popular and the use expands to the limits set by Congress, then you get a backlog," said Bob Dane, a FAIR spokesman. "Then that pressure begins to be applied to Congress to deal with the backlog by increasing the ceiling."

Attorneys who work with U-visa applicants said they have yet to face much trouble with the limit because applications are put on hold until the next fiscal year, which begins in October.

By contrast, a cap of 5,000 visas available to human trafficking victims has never been reached. Last year only 574 applications were received.

In part, experts said, victims of human trafficking have a difficult time coming forward because of the nature of the crime — and when they are tracked down, it can be difficult to get them to talk about their experiences.

U-visas, on the other hand, are available to the widest group of crime victims, including victims of assault, domestic violence and other crimes.

For those who manage to learn about and obtain the benefit, the program has a lasting effect.

After she was granted a visa, Norma went back to school to become a dental technician. In May she became a legal permanent resident and, she said, she hopes to become a citizen as soon as she is eligible. Her daughters too were granted legal permission to stay in the country.

Elisa, an Orange County woman who received a U-visa after reporting her husband's physical abuse, became a citizen in May. She asked that her real name not be used to protect her family.

"I feel very grateful to this country," she said. "I've gone to school, I've taken English, I've learned about self-esteem. I've been allowed to be independent, to work and to look for a better future."

paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

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