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Pro Bono & Access to Justice

Immigration Relief for Victims of Violent Crime

April 2010

The City Bar Justice Center, as part of the New York Anti-Trafficking Network (NYATN), has released the  “Immigration Relief for Crime Victims: The U-Visa Manual,” a comprehensive guide to a relatively new and little-known visa granted to non-citizen victims of violent crime who cooperate in investigations or prosecutions. The guide is designed to inform and educate lawyers and government officials about the visa, which the Justice Center and NYATN hope to use to help immigrants gain legal status.

The U-Visa was established in 2000 and “provides legal status to victims of certain serious crimes who have suffered substantial physical or mental harm and can document cooperation with law enforcement,” according to the manual.  Its purpose is twofold: first, to encourage non-citizens who have been victims of violent crime to come forward and pursue prosecution of their attackers, and second to promote pubic safety by encouraging cooperation with law enforcement in the prosecution of crimes. The law lacked federal regulations and U-Visa applicants could only access “interim relief” until January 2009, when regulations finally came into full effect.

“The U-Visa is an extremely important form of relief, particularly for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking,” said Suzanne Tomatore, one of the manual’s authors and Director of the Immigrant Women & Children Project at the City Bar Justice Center. “Many victims hide in the shadows, or remain trapped by their abusers, fearing deportation if they approach authorities.” 

Tomatore’s project has worked on almost 200 U-Visa applications for clients from over 40 countries.  One successful case involved Ellen, a 13-year old girl who immigrated as a toddler with her parents from Jamaica.  One day while home alone, her building’s superintendent came to her door asking if her parents were home. Using an excuse about a leak, he entered the apartment and sexually assaulted her, threatening to report the whole family to immigration authorities if she told anyone. 

The abuse continued for several months before Ellen, terrified, found the courage to tell her father.  When confronted, the super again threatened to call immigration authorities on the family.  Deciding that the crime was too serious, and that the man would likely prey on other young girls, the family reported the crime.  The man eventually plead guilty, and because Ellen was a minor when the crimes occurred, the District Attorney’s office signed off on certification for Ellen and her family to apply for U-Visas. 

Immigrants can apply for the U-Visa if they have been a victim of one or more of 24 enumerated crimes, ranging from sexual violence to slavery, kidnapping, and felonious assault.  Family members of victims also qualify under certain circumstances, including families of murder victims, and families of minors who have been victims. The visa provides legal status and work authorization for four years, with the opportunity to seek permanent residency after three years. 

The New York immigration advocacy community has been working to inform immigrant communities about the U-Visa. Fear of cooperation with law enforcement authorities is still seen as a problem within the community, even when it could benefit immigrants. The Justice Center and NYATN hope that more awareness of the U-Visa will dispel this problem.

“Not only is the U-Visa program beneficial to the individuals who have been victims of crimes, it is also a benefit to public safety to the extent that it helps remove violent offenders from communities,” said Tomatore.  “With cases like Ellen’s, I am so glad that there is recourse for victims, and that justice is able to be served.”