Abuse exists across many industries and institutions, and low-income people of color are particularly vulnerable. This is especially true in the context of immigration.
Since the #MeToo movement started over a decade ago, it has become more than about giving a voice to survivors of sexual assault and violence; it has been about change—providing more protections for survivors and taking down the systems that oppress them. And not just for women, but for men and LGBTQ+ individuals as well. What we have learned is that the abuse of power and complicity with that abuse exists across many industries and institutions and that low-income people of color are particularly vulnerable. This is especially true in the context of immigration.
Undocumented individuals who suffer from sexual assault, domestic violence and exploitation in the work force face unique challenges due to the added vulnerability created by their immigration status in the United States. They are often fearful of reporting abuse or exploitation to law enforcement because they fear that they will be deported and separated from their families. This effectively provides abusers with a tool to silence their victims.
That is why Congress created the bipartisan U-visa program in 2000. Its purpose was to encourage immigrants to come forward and report crimes to law enforcement and to afford protection for those willing to cooperate. Congress intended for the program to protect victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and other serious crimes. Those granted a “U-visa” are later eligible for lawful permanent residence (a.k.a. a “green card”) and citizenship.
Since its creation, processing times of U-visa applications have skyrocketed, creating a backlog of over 160,000 cases and wait times of almost five years. For years, advocates have been sounding the alarm that these delays undermine the efficacy and purpose of the U-visa program. Rather than create solutions to address this crisis, these backlogs continue to grow and DHS has erected additional barriers to securing relief.
At Safe Horizon’s Immigration Law Project, we have been representing survivors in U-visa petitions since the U-visa became available in 2008. U-visa and related applications form the majority of our caseload and we have successfully assisted hundreds of survivors in obtaining U-visa protections for themselves and their families.
Around 2018, however, we began noticing a shift in practice where USCIS began routinely issuing demands for more evidence and denying applications for any applicant who has had any contact with the criminal justice system, no matter how minor that contact was.
This has been particularly problematic because many of our clients have had some contact with the criminal justice system. It is not uncommon for abusers to weaponize the criminal justice system and file retaliatory complaints against their victims.
Such was the case with our client, Angela Harriet*, who applied for a U-visa after bravely coming forward as one of the victims of a serial rapist. Before she applied, however, her abusive ex filed a false complaint against her, accusing her of assaulting him with a cell phone, when in fact, he was the one who threatened to shoot her. The criminal case against Angela was ultimately dismissed and the record sealed, and USCIS granted Angela’s U-visa without requesting any of the sealed records. Yet in 2018, USCIS, in reviewing her application for a green card based on her U-status, demanded disclosure of the full criminal record.
Angela submitted a sworn statement explaining how her abuser had tried to use the police to harm her. She also submitted evidence that the charges against her were dismissed and the record sealed. Although USCIS had previously granted her U-visa based on the same evidence, it denied her green card.
What this effectively does, for Angela and for countless others, is slam the door on the very individuals Congress intended to protect with the U-visa program. But it also does so much more: It exposes the persistent culture of putting survivors “on trial,” of not believing survivors, of abuses of power, of complicity with abusers, of structural racism.
USCIS can and must do better. That is why Safe Horizon, together with our partner, ASISTA, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) complaint recently demanding compliance with a request for records relating to USCIS’s unannounced shift in practice. It’s time to stand up for and protect immigrant survivors.
*Name changed to protect identity
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