Under the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (VTVPA), victims of qualifying crimes can travel to the United States to assist law enforcement and government officials in the investigation and prosecution of criminal activity. Participants in this program receive a U visa, and they can live in the United States for up to four years. The actual length of stay typically hinges on the length and complexity of the criminal case(s) that they are involved in, and whether the individual can continue to be of further assistance to law enforcement.
US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) imposes strict eligibility requirements for U nonimmigrant status. While immigration officials are sympathetic to the needs of victims of any crimes, US immigration law specifically designates 28 crimes that qualify for a U visa:
- Abusive sexual contact
- Domestic violence
- False imprisonment
- Female genital mutilation
- Felonious assault
- Fraud in foreign labor contracting
- Involuntary servitude
- Obstruction of justice
- Sexual assault
- Sexual exploitation
- Slave trade
- Witness tampering
- Unlawful criminal restraint
As the U visa program only considers victims who have suffered serious physical or mental abuse, most qualifying victims apply for a visa during or after the qualifying criminal activity. However, immigration officials are also permitted to consider any cases that involve conspiracy, attempt, and solicitation to commit these 28 crimes. It’s possible for a victim to work with law enforcement and obtain a U visa before a physical crime takes place, providing the victim suffers physical or mental abuse in relation to the conspiracy, solicitation, or attempted activity.
Eligibility for U Non-immigrant Status
Being the victim of a qualifying crime who has suffered substantial physical or mental abuse isn’t the only requirement for a U visa. In order to qualify for U nonimmigrant status, the victim must possess valuable information on the criminal activity and actively assist law enforcement, judges, and prosecutors in the investigation and prosecution of the case. A key piece of the U visa application packet is the “certificate of helpfulness” from law enforcement, and officials will want to see evidence that the victim will continue to be helpful.
The victim must also be admissible to the United States. If the victim is subject to a ban on entering the United States under Immigration & Nationality Act § 212(a), he or she will need to petition USCIS for a waiver of inadmissibility. You can do this by filing Form I-192, Application for Advance Permission to Enter as Nonimmigrant.
Finally, the qualifying crime must violate US laws. Many U visa cases involve crimes that have occurred in the United States, but it’s not uncommon to see an international case from time to time. That said, even international cases that coordinate with foreign law enforcement agencies typically tie back to criminal cases originating within the United States.
Applying for a U Visa
The first step on the path towards U nonimmigrant status is to hire an immigration attorney. USCIS only issues 10,000 U visas each year, and the current processing time is approximately 47 months, so you’ll need an experienced attorney to push your case through in a timely manner.
Under the counsel of your attorney, the next step is to coordinate with the law enforcement officers and prosecutors assigned to your case.
Document every interaction that you have with these officials, even if it’s a simple phone call or email to see how you can be of further assistance. Once you have proven to be helpful, or at least that you can be helpful, your attorney will have an authorized official sign Form I-918 Supplement B, U Nonimmigrant Status Certification. This certificate is the bedrock of your U visa application, so it’s essential that the authorizing official fully endorses your candidacy for a visa and you have evidence to prove your helpfulness.
As you are working to obtain your status certificate, you and your attorney will also begin to work on your actual application for U nonimmigrant status—Form I-918. This will include a personal statement that describes the criminal activity of which you were a victim, evidence to support your case, and a number of personal identification and travel documents to establish your eligibility. When your application is complete, you will submit the packet to the USCIS Vermont Service Center.
Once USCIS has reviewed and approved your application, they will forward the packet to the nearest US Embassy or Consulate. You will be asked to complete an interview with a visa consular officer, after which you will have your fingerprints taken. Assuming you pass the interview and no further documentation is required, you should receive your visa authorization that day.
U Visas for Qualifying Family Members
U visas aren’t just for the victims of qualifying crimes. In many cases, the victim’s immediate family members may be eligible to travel to the United States as a beneficiary with a derivative U visa. A victim who is younger than 21 may petition for U visas on behalf of their spouse, children, parents, and unmarried siblings under age 18. A victim who is 21 or older can petition for U visas on behalf of their spouse and children.
USCIS awards U visas according to the following classification schedule:
- U-1 for the victim
- U-2 for the victim’s spouse
- U-3 for the victim’s children
- U-4 for the victim’s parents
- U-5 for the victim’s unmarried siblings under age 18
Green Cards for U Non-immigrants
Ideally, a U visa-holder will become a valuable and contributing member of society while in the United States, and he or she will continue to actively work with law enforcement. Once a U visa-holder has been physically present in the United States for at least three years, they can apply for a green card (lawful permanent residency) with Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status.
Once a U visa-holder applies for a green card, their visa will automatically be extended to provide enough time for USCIS officials to evaluate their application. While processing times vary from case to case, the approval process typically takes 12 – 19 months.
As with the initial U nonimmigrant visa application, it’s important to work with an immigration attorney when applying for a green card. Even the smallest mistake or lack of evidence can result in a negative decision, and if your U visa has expired when your green card application is denied you will be forced to leave the United States immediately.
Call our Immigration team at (480) 626-2388 to discuss your case today.