Immigrants in New Jersey and around the country who become crime victims can apply for what is known as a U visa. They only become eligible to receive U visas when they report crimes and a police department or other certifying agency states that they fully cooperated during the ensuing criminal investigation. The problems immigrants are running into are an application backlog and long waiting times. According to an August 2023 media investigation, some immigrant crime victims are still waiting for U visas they applied for seven years ago. This alarms nonprofit groups like Mid-South Immigration Advocates because immigrants cannot work legally in the United States while they are waiting for U visas.
The U visa program
The U visa program was introduced when the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act was passed in 2000. The program was included in the legislation to help the authorities investigate serious crimes like human trafficking that often have immigrant victims. It was believed that offering a speedier path to citizenship would encourage immigrants to report crimes and cooperate with law enforcement. The 2000 law allows immigration authorities to issue up to 10,000 U visas each year.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has reported that there are more than 300,000 pending U visa applications, and some of them are more likely to be approved than others. That is because “full cooperation” is a term that is subject to interpretation. In some parts of the country, officials only certify that an immigrant cooperated fully if their perpetrator is apprehended. The rules were revised in 2021 to allow immigrants waiting for U visas to apply for work permits, but that provides little relief because it can take longer than four years to receive a work permit.
The best of intentions
The U visa program was introduced with the best of intentions, but long waiting times, an application backlog and vague rules have made it less appealing to immigrant crime victims than it could have been. Congress could address the program’s major shortcomings by clarifying its language and increasing the number of U visas that can be issued each year.