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U Visa Gives Immigrant Women Victims a New Chance

New America Media, News Feature, Viji Sundaram Posted: Sep 21, 2007

Editors Note: Even as federal deportations of undocumented immigrants continue to increase, a new visa grants temporary legal status to victims of certain crimes many of whom are women. Viji Sundaram is an editor at New America Media.

SAN FRANCISCO When 37-year-old Bertha heard last week about the imminent availability of a long-awaited visa, which would allow crime victims like her to stay in the United States, she could barely contain her joy.

I havent seen my family in five years, she says in Spanish, as she drops in at the non-profit Mujeres Unidas y Activas center, which provides support to low-income immigrant women and women experiencing domestic violence. Now I can go back [to Mexico] and visit them.

mujeres2At least 30 other women have applied for the so-called U visa through the center in the last two years. But there are many more out there who qualify but have not applied, observes program director Juana Flores. Two years ago, Mexico-born Bertha who asked to be identified only by her first name filed for the U visa after getting out of an abusive relationship with her partner of three years, with whom she has two children. She has been living illegally in the United States since she arrived.

She is one of an estimated 8,000 women and their children nationwide who have applied for the U visa, hoping it will give them legal status and eventually a green card. All they have been given thus far is interim relief in the form of work authorization.

This fall, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will begin retroactively granting temporary legal status to undocumented immigrants who have been victims of a crime and have petitioned for the U visa. For their part, the petitioners must procure certification from a law enforcement agency that theyve suffered such crimes as domestic violence, rape or extortion committed on U.S. soil. They must also cooperate with law enforcement.

The U visa is part of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act passed by Congress in 2000, recognizing the vulnerability and hesitation of crime victims to cooperate with law enforcement officials for fear of being deported.

These regulations make it possible for our most vulnerable immigrants to finally have the opportunity to apply for a status that should have been available years ago, says Leslye Orloff, director of the Immigrant Women Program at the Washington, D.C.-based Legal Momentum, an advocacy group that works to advance the rights of women.

The law has not been enforceable until now because of bureaucratic delays in coming up with regulations that were finally released last week. Legal Momentum, in partnership with the National Network to End Violence Against Immigrant Women, has been pushing for the release of these vital regulations, says staff attorney Kavitha Sreeharsha.

Sreeharsha who was involved with Narika, a Berkeley-based support group for South Asian victims of domestic violence, for more than a dozen years notes that the U visa will provide a powerful tool for immigrant women. Many South Asian women, for example, whose legal status is dependent on family members, will now be able to seek police help without fear of deportation.

For many immigrant victims who arent able to self-petition through the Violence Against Women Act, she says, this visa will allow them an alternative path to live safely and have status on their own.

The Violence Against Women Act, passed by Congress in 1994, allows a person married to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident to self-petition for a green card if he or she has experienced spousal abuse. To get a U visa, by contrast, the applicant does not need to be married to the perpetrator of a crime.

Three years after receiving a U visa, the person can apply for a green card.

This means Bertha will have to wait just one more year to apply for permanent residency, something that gives her cause to cheer. Renewing her work permit is becoming increasingly difficult, she says.

I had to pay $340 and thats a lot of money for someone who is employed as a domestic worker, she says.

Esperanza Barajas, 36, also from Mexico, doesnt mind having to wait for three years for her U visa as long as she is assured of U.S. citizenship eventually. With help from Mujeres Unidas y Activas, she got her work permit two months ago.

I want to stay on in America, says the mother of three children. Im happy the regulations are out.

Listen to Kavitha Sreeharsha of Legal Momentum discuss the U visa on 'UpFront'

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