The U-visa: A Way Out For Domestic Violence Survivors

Photo: Thinkstock
Photo: Thinkstock

When she walked into the Glendale YWCA more than a year ago, Rosa Garcia was desperate. The Mexican immigrant, who has lived in the U.S. illegally for 16 years, was suffering from violent physical abuse at home at the hands of her children’s father.

“He would mop the floor with me like I was a rag.” says Garcia, whose name was changed for this story to protect her privacy. “My self-esteem was through the floor and I felt like I was drowning.” Garcia’s husband threatened that if she reported him, the police would deport her back to Mexico without her three sons, ages 3, 9, and 13. Instead, a year later, Garcia has a special U-visa and her abuser has been deported. “Now that he’s not here, I feel at peace,” she said recently.

A new California law aims to make it easier for domestic violence survivors who are immigrants, like Garcia, to secure that coveted protection—a U-visa—much faster. Created in 2000 as part of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, a U-visa allows immigrant violent crime victims, along with close family members, to apply to live and work in the U.S. if they assist law enforcement in bringing perpetrators to justice. U-visa applicants are required to get a certification from law enforcement stating that they have been or are likely to be helpful to a criminal investigation.

There are significant disparities, however, in how those certifications are processed due to the idiosyncratic nature of local law enforcement departments. For example, Kern County officials systematically deny certifications on the basis of their political views on immigration matters. Still, in other parts of the state, applications may be speedily moving through the system only to stall when law enforcement personnel or bureaucratic priorities change.

“For survivors, that makes your ability to access such a vital protection so dependent on where you live and what agency you happen to be dealing with,” says Krista Niemczyk, the Public Policy Manager at the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence.

The new state law, SB674, signed by Governor Brown in October, will require that agencies empowered to certify that a survivor has been helpful—law enforcement, a judge, the district attorney or child protective services—make a determination within 90-days. The bill also creates “presumption of helpfulness” that the survivor has been supportive of the process unless it is clear that they haven’t been. It also requires each agency to report how many U-visa requests they received and which were denied and approved—an attempt to expose which jurisdictions may be dragging their feet.

Lucie C. Hollingsworth, staff attorney for the YWCA of Glendale, says she had one client who had to wait a year for certification and then the U-visa took two more years to get. “That’s three years stuck in an abusive situation and struggling with housing and taking care of her kids,” says Hollingsworth. Timing is everything for women who are in abusive relationships, so delays processing applications can have real life-and-death consequences, she says.

The California Women‘s Health Survey reports that approximately 40 percent of California women experience physical intimate partner violence in their lifetime. Of those women, 75 percent of victims had children under the age of 18 years at home. Intimate partner violence has been linked in many research studies to a range of physical and mental health problems, including neurological disorders, chronic pain, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as hypertension, cancer and cardiovascular diseases, according to the National Coalition to End Domestic Violence. Victims of domestic violence are also at higher risk for developing addictions to alcohol, tobacco, or drugs and are at a higher risk of suicide, according to a report by the World Health Organization.

Arami Youn, a staff attorney at APILO (Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach) in Oakland, who advocates for domestic violence survivors, knows firsthand how her clients’ health is impacted by the abuse they suffer. Youn sees the U-visa as a big positive to help women, who are afraid of being deported, come out of the shadows and get the assistance they need to heal. But she says, in the Asian community, cultural barriers have thwarted that goal.

Her clients may speak more than 14 languages, but their understanding of English is limited, which makes their willingness to help law enforcement harder to demonstrate. When there is a physical altercation between a husband and a wife, for example, a neighbor may call the police. When officers get to the scene, “they speak to the abuser who often speaks better English than the survivor,” she says. That first encounter with police often determines if the abuser gets arrested. It is difficult for her clients to go back and tell their side or press charges.

Elizabeth Sahagun, the bilingual case manager at the YWCA in Glendale, who helped Spanish-speaking Garcia secure her U-visa, says that every time she is able to help a domestic violence survivor find their voice, it’s a victory.

“It’s a rewarding feeling for me to know that I am making a difference in their lives,” she says, “I want them to feel supported and safe, that there is still something good in the world.”






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