Rosa was 14 when her stepfather started raping her and 15 when she became pregnant with his child.
Before she had the baby, he drove her from Modesto to her native Mexico, dropping her off alone in Tijuana.
Rosa and her mother, who both had been living in the U.S. illegally, went to police and pressed charges against the stepfather, who is now on the run from authorities in Mexico. Their cooperation with U.S. law enforcement made them eligible to apply for a U visa, which gives immigrant victims of crimes, along with close family members, the chance to live and work in the U.S.
Rosa is waiting for her visa to be approved so she may return to the U.S. with her mother and newborn child. But a surge in the number of U-visa requests means applicants like her will likely have to wait years to reap those immigration benefits.
Demand for the program has far outpaced a 10,000-per-year cap on the visas set by Congress, with just over 26,000 applications filed last fiscal year. There’s even a wait to get on the waiting list: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which processes the applications in the order they were filed, hasn’t evaluated any application submitted after December 2013.
In the face of a growing backlog, the immigration agency recently began issuing temporary work permits to some of those on the waiting list. But that option is available only to those filing for U visas from inside the U.S., and protections for family members of the victim are not extended until the visa has actually been issued.
The program’s popularity has risen rapidly thanks in part to an outreach campaign by the government, immigration officials say. According to federal data, the number of applications filed annually has increased nearly fourfold since 2009, when the first petitions were approved.
Immigrant advocates say the sharp rise in applications should be matched by a larger number of visas granted. They are calling on Congress to raise the annual cap and asking the government to do more to help those waiting on a visa in the near term.
Gail Pendleton, co-director of Asista, which advocates for immigrant victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, recently co-wrote a letter to the director of immigration services asking for new procedures to allow relatives of victims who are living abroad to come to the U.S. on parole status.
“Family members abroad desperately need to reunite with the primary crime victim, and the crime victim needs family support to heal and build a new life,” she wrote.
In an interview, she said the long delays for visas could undermine the program. “When victims hear that the visas are used up they may think it’s not worth it to come forward,” Pendleton said.
Congress created the U-visa program in 2000 as part of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act to provide an incentive for immigrant victims who might be afraid to go to police for fear of deportation. Applicants must allege that they have been the victim of a serious crime and provide a certification form signed by law enforcement stating that they have been or are likely to be helpful to an investigation.
Some law enforcement agencies make it difficult for immigrants to win such certifications.
According to data obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union, officials in Kern County, for example, approved only four out of 160 requests for certification in the last three years. Other jurisdictions signed thousands of certifications during the same period.
Kern County officials have said they refused to sign certifications for crimes committed long ago because they felt victims were trying to game the immigration system.
Advocates for stricter immigration enforcement complain that the program is ripe for fraud and shouldn’t be expanded.
Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said the premise of U visas is wrong.
“We shouldn’t have to bribe people in this way to come forward to report crimes or report information,” Mehlman said.
Last year’s Senate proposal to overhaul the immigration system included a provision to raise the annual U-visa cap to 15,000. That bill died when the Republican-controlled Congress refused to take it up.
Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park), who has unsuccessfully sought to raise the cap and to expand U visas to include victims of labor exploitation, said her Republican colleagues did a disservice to “immigrants who bravely speak out.”
Michelle Carey, an attorney at the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice, said immigrants put themselves at risk by coming forward.
“They’ve done that really hard work,” Carey said. “They deserve this.”
She recently helped a client from El Salvador file for a U visa after her husband repeatedly abused her and threatened her with a knife.
“He treated me more like a servant than a partner,” said the woman, who asked not to give her name because she fears retribution from her former husband. The woman applied for a U visa in 2013 and was approved. But because the cap had already been reached, she was placed on a waiting list, where she sits today.
Until she gets her visa, she cannot bring her young daughter from El Salvador to join her in the U.S.
When they talk on the phone, the daughter asks her mother, “When are you going to bring me? When are you going to bring me?”
“I don’t have an answer,” she said.