Undocumented immigrants who are victims of crime are often reluctant to get police involved, even when they’ve suffered violent attacks. The U visa, created by Congress in 2000, was meant to mitigate that problem. U visas protect victims of serious crimes by helping them stay in the country if they cooperate in the investigation or prosecution of the crime. But recent policy shifts could be undermining the program’s goals of encouraging victims to step out of the shadows.
The number of U visa petitions filed nationwide by undocumented immigrants grew dramatically over much of the past decade — from 6,580 in fiscal year 2009 to a high of more than 37,000 in 2017. However, in the past two years, the trend has reversed. Applications fell nearly 20% year over year in FY2019, when petitions totaled 28,364 — the lowest number since 2014.
A spokesperson for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said the agency wouldn’t speculate on the decrease in filings and that “due diligence in data analysis should be considered here,” noting filings remain in the tens of thousands. The spokesperson added “USCIS has not made any policy changes to the U visa program.”
But in June 2018, a policy memo from the agency did offer new guidance on issuing documents to begin removal proceedings against foreign nationals in the country. Immigration lawyers say this policy, along with changes at Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Board of Immigration Appeals, has meant a higher risk of deportation for U visa applicants, and many are advising clients not to apply unless they have, in the words of one attorney, a “slam dunk case.”
There are barriers at the local level, too, as U visa petitioners need certification from law enforcement saying the applicant has been, or will be, helpful in solving certain types of violent crimes, including rape, kidnapping, murder and domestic violence. In Colorado, law enforcement’s willingness to grant these certifications has varied from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but a bill in the state legislature aims to change that.