Too often immigrants are victimized by crime, sometimes without even realizing a crime has occurred. Exploitation, fraud, extortion and other crimes go unreported and undetected in our immigrant communities because immigrants are often fearful of ending up in trouble themselves if they turn to the authorities for help. But the U Visa program, which has been getting a lot more attention in recent months, can provide some benefit and relief to those who have been crime victims. It provides a potential way for immigrants to turn misfortune into an opportunity to obtain legal status.
The U visa program is set aside for “victims of certain crimes who have suffered mental or physical abuse and are helpful to law enforcement or government officials in the investigation or prosecution of criminal activity.” It is a nonimmigrant visa that provides the applicant with legal residence in the U.S for an initial period of three years. (Click here to read more about the requirements for the program.) The U visa was originally established by Congress in 2000 as part of a legislative effort to combat human trafficking and prevent abuse, by offering protection to victims who help law enforcement better investigate and prosecute criminal activity. Since then the U visa program has begun to find broader application in other contexts.
Victims of various types of criminal activity other than human trafficking may now be eligible for consideration under the U visa program, including robbery and assault. Other common criminal activity may likewise provide a basis for U visa consideration, if the victims cooperate with the police, such as the following crimes that frequently target members of the immigrant community:
- Fraud by notarios. Undocumented immigrants often seek out notarios who promise to help them. These individuals may provide little or no services, negligent services or even worse, disappear after being paid. Under certain circumstances, this type of fraudulent activity may be a crime that would qualify under the U visa rules if victims come forward to help police with their investigation.
- Workplace exploitation. Unsafe conditions, forced labor or intentionally withholding payment for work may also qualify. Many undocumented immigrants work for landscapers, contractors or for other businesses where they are subject to employers who take advantage of them believing they will fear making a complaint. If any employer crosses the line and commits fraud or engages in criminal exploitation, this may also serve as a basis to apply for a type U visa.
- Children as victims. Parents of children who are victims of a crime, such as sexual abuse, may also qualify for a U Visa. This is true even if the child is a US citizen.
In the case of workplace investigations, there has been added attention because of a recent Department of Labor (DOL) announcement. On April 4, 2015, the Department of Labor expanded the types of cases it would certify for U visas. What this means is that in these types of cases, the victim does not have to go to the police or district attorney and can instead go to the DOL. This is an important development because of distrust of the police among immigrant communities. For example, in Suffolk County a class action was just filed accusing the Police Department of engaging in a widespread pattern of racial discrimination, harassment and cover-ups. So for members of the community who are reluctant to take their complaints to the police, the DOL now provides another avenue for undocumented workers to report workplace crimes and qualify for protection under the U visa program. Click here to see a list of the types of criminal activity the DOL will certify.
A U Visa can be granted to applicants even if they would be denied a visa pursuant to other rules, such as those who themselves committed a crime or were deported and then returned to the US again. After an initial term of 3 years, a U visa holder becomes eligible to apply for a green card.
If you think you’ve been a victim of a crime or have questions about the U Visa, please contact us for a consultation.