The Problem With the 'Victim Visa'

PHOTO: Thousands of undocumented immigrant women are abused by their husbands or boyfriends every year, but many dont come forward out fear that they will be deported.

Rosa Gutierrez, a 13-year-old girl living in Waco, Texas, was repeatedly raped two years ago by a 43-year-old man who was once her mother's boyfriend.

Along with her mother, Rosa, whose name we have changed to protect her identity, is residing in the country without authorization. Despite the fear of being deported, Rosa's mother turned her boyfriend of the time into the police. He is now serving a 35-year prison sentence for his crimes, thanks in large part to the testimonies provided by the two women.

But the trauma associated with the incident has not ended for the teen and her mother. Rosa, who was brought to the U.S. as a one-year-old, is not eligible to receive counseling for the abuse under government programs like Medicaid, because she is living in the country without authorization, according to their pro bono attorney Susan Nelson. And Rosa's mother, who was once financially dependent on her daughter's abuser, has found herself unable to find stable work without legal status.

The good news for these women is that there's a special visa, known as the U visa, intended to be used in cases just like these. The visa grants temporary status to undocumented victims of crimes and their close family members if they will cooperate with law enforcement. As part of the process, police or prosecutors are required to sign a form confirming that the victim suffered a crime and will cooperate with local authorities or has done so already.

The bad news, however, is that the district attorney in her town, Abel Reyna, rejected her request for the certification necessary for visa because of his interpretation of the law.

Herein lies one of the major problems with the so called U visa, says Susan Bowyer, the directing attorney of the Immigration Center for Women and Children, the agency which she says assists about one in every 10 victims who are awarded the U visa each year.

"A person can be a victim of a violent crime and cooperate fully with the police in one city but have no chance of getting a certification, while someone in a neighboring city can be knocked unconscious, not even witness the crime because she was unconscious, and be awarded the certification easily," said Bowyer. "It's hugely unfair, arbitrary, irrational, and inconsistent -- but it sure is better than not having it at all."

Like many immigration provisions, U visa law is mandated federally, but implemented inconsistently by local law enforcement. Some advocates, like Bowyer, say that more resources should be devoted to ensuring local law enforcement agencies can carry out U visa certifications consistently to make the program better serve victims in need.

Proponents of U visa say the program makes a difference because it often allows victims to be less financially dependent on their abusers, and more likely to come forward, by granting them four years of legal status, and allowing them to apply for permanent resident status after three years. Advocates say the program also encourages undocumented communities to cooperate with law enforcement.

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