The U Visa: Immigration Protection for Those Suffering Serious Crimes

The U Visa, specifically provided to aliens who are victims of certain serious crimes, is one of the more recent changes in the United States' immigration scheme. This unique visa was enacted by Congress to serve two important purposes: to enhance law enforcement's ability to investigate and prosecute cases of serious crime; and to offer immigration protection to the victims of such crimes who may otherwise be fearful of assisting law enforcement. Although the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) started rolling out the U Visa in 2009, many aliens and undocumented immigrants are unaware of this potential source of immigration relief.

The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) Section 101(a)(15)(U) lays out the basic requirements that an alien must meet in order to be eligible for a U Visa. First, he or she must have suffered substantial physical or mental abuse from an act deemed to be in violation of United States law, or that occurred in the United States or one of its territories. Crimes that make such a person eligible for a U Visa include rape, domestic violence, sexual assault, kidnapping, and stalking. Second, he or she must possess information concerning the criminal activity. Third, he or she must be helpful, is being helpful, or is likely to be helpful to law enforcement officials in the investigation or prosecution of the criminal activity. Importantly, this does not mean that the perpetrator of the underlying crime be prosecuted or brought to trial. Rather, such a person only need prove that they have been or will be helpful to law enforcement in the investigation or prosecution of the crime.

The U Visa provides several benefits. Although the U Visa is listed as a nonimmigrant visa, it potentially provides a path to United States Citizenship. The U Visa is valid for four years, but the alien is eligible to apply for legal permanent resident status after three years. During this time, he or she is permitted to lawfully live, work, and provide for their family in the United States. In addition, unlike several of the other nonimmigrant visas, the U Visa regulations allow "derivative" status for the U Visa applicant. Importantly, derivative status allows parents and siblings under the age of 18, if the U Visa applicant is under the age of 21, to also obtain legal immigration status as derivatives under the applicant's visa application. Where the U Visa applicant is married and has minor children, the spouse and minor children of the U Visa applicant will also be eligible for U Visa status. Similar to the U Visa applicant, those family members who are granted derivative status are allowed to live and work in the United States lawfully.

Notably, USCIS has enacted a restriction that only 10,000 U Visas will be approved yearly. Once this limit has been reached, USCIS will cease issuing U Visas for that year, but will continue to review U Visa applications for eligibility. Those applicants that USCIS deems eligible will be placed on a waiting list to receive a U Visa once a visa is available. Therefore, it is important to apply as soon as possible in order for the application to be reviewed by USCIS and, if eligible, to be granted a U Visa.

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