How often have we heard about our immigration system being broken? President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz and John Boehner have said it recently, and they’re not the only ones. It’s become a tired part of political speak.
The idea that the entire immigration system is broken is misleading. Some immigration policies, like U visas for undocumented immigrants, have been created after a great deal of forethought and are working as intended — at least in San Francisco.
Recently, I was told the story of an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. She arrived in San Francisco a few years ago and met her husband here. They found low-paying jobs to support themselves, but the stress of their lives took a heavy toll. Very soon after their marriage, her husband began beating her. It happened infrequently at first, and then with frightening regularity.
The woman was too scared to go to the authorities for fear she would be deported. She tolerated the escalating violence because she felt she had no other choice. That is, until she met a friend who knew of someone else who had gone through the same experience and had ultimately escaped the situation by applying for a U visa.
In October 2000, Congress passed a law called the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, in response to concerns about immigrants who are at singular risk when it comes to crime and violence. This law allowed for U visas to be issued to undocumented immigrants who are victims of crimes like domestic abuse and felonious assault.
The U visa is valid for four years, during which time the applicant can stay and work in the United States lawfully. After three years, the U visa holder is eligible to apply for a green card or permanent status. As one of the conditions of the U visa process, the applicant must obtain a certificate from the local or state law enforcement agency confirming that he or she is helping the police apprehend criminals.
To me, this seems to be an inspired and humanitarian way to reduce the crime rate in The City and at the same time connect with the immigrant community. Undocumented immigrants live their lives in the shadows of our society, and abused, undocumented women live in the shadows of the shadows. U visas are their escape hatches. It is one way they can emerge into the light.
Fear of being caught and sent back home — often facing worse situations — has kept many undocumented victims silent and submissive. These are victims of assaults and abuse who believe they have no recourse to legal or law enforcement help.
The mere act of applying for a U visa “brings about a huge change in a victim’s life,” says Susan Bowyer, deputy director of the Immigration Center for Women and Children, which has offices in four California cities, including San Francisco. Of all the U visa cases Bowyer receives at her law firm, half are domestic violence victims, 30 percent are sexual assault and the remaining fall into the robbery and felonious assault category.
Every nine seconds, a woman is battered in the U.S. It cuts across class, race, status, income, education and citizenship boundaries. Most domestic violence victims find it difficult to escape the manipulation of their batterers. Furthermore, undocumented victims become isolated from their own communities, alienated from their families and — especially in cases where they cannot speak English — end up dangerously alone and neglected.
If we believe the police have a moral duty to protect the weak in addition to catching criminals, U visas significantly help their causes. In the San Francisco Police Department, this sentiment is shared.
“I’m the only one handling U visas and I processed close to 700 cases last year,” Sgt. Tony Flores of the SFPD Special Victims Unit told me. “Many of them [are] cases of battery.”
The SFPD signed 1,663 U Visa certificates between 2009 and May 2014, according to Reuters. This was the fifth highest number of certifications in the country, even though The City is the 13th most populous in the United States.
That is heartening news for San Francisco residents. With this increase in the reporting of felonies, more violent criminals can be apprehended and convicted and taken off our city streets.
The federal government has set a statutory cap of 10,000 U visas issued per fiscal year, from October to September. For the year 2016, the cap was reached within three months on Dec. 29, 2015, which means the next U visa won’t be issued until Oct. 1 this year.
“The cap is ridiculous. It doesn’t make sense!” Flores said.
Every new application submitted has about a two- or three-year waiting period. Raising the statutory cap has been part of the immigration reform discussion, but there is not likely to be a resolution — at least not until there is a change in Congress, and we have lawmakers who are empathetic and more willing to compromise.
More than 25,000 people apply for U visas each year across the country. In 2015, there were 30,106 people who submitted petitions, and 63,762 applications are pending. And that number can only rise.
Meanwhile, undocumented battered women walk the streets among us. And with U visas in hand, perhaps they can commence that slow process towards confidence and self-reliance as they begin to form their own American identities.
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