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Somewhere to turn: The U visa, a path to citizenship for immigrant victims of domestic violence
A year ago possibilities meant nothing to Mari Hernandez.
Possibilities were for American citizens—people who spoke English or had money. They certainly weren’t for undocumented immigrant women whose husbands beat them into a life of silence.
For women like her, there was control, fear and manipulation. But worse than that, there was the threat that her husband, an American citizen, would have her deported. Twenty-three years in America meant nothing without her citizenship papers, she said. Despite living in the United States for more than two decades she was still undocumented. Her husband, who as an American could have petitioned for her to become a permanent resident and get a green card, hid the fact that he was a citizen from her and chose not to do so, she said.
But in 2009, Hernandez broke her silence by reporting her husband to the police for domestic violence. That’s the moment her world changed. Two years later, her freedom came in a tiny package called the U visa.
“Si se puede. Si se puede” Hernandez said, a bright smile flushing her face with a rosy glow. “Yes, it can be done,” it means in English.
A new kind of visa— called the U nonimmigrant status or U visa—offers immigration protection for undocumented victims of mental or physical abuse who are willing to assist law enforcement in the investigation and the prosecution of the abuser. The police fill out a form called the I9-18B confirming that the victim has experienced substantial abuse and is cooperating with authorities to prosecute the abuser.
In exchange, the four-year visa allows the victims to get a work permit and apply for permanent residency after three years. It also offers protection to the children of domestic violence victims.
The U visa, which is meant to encourage immigrants to seek help for violence, including abuse, was first made available in 2008. Immigrants are eligible to apply for it regardless of whether or not they are married to their partner, and regardless of that partner’s citizenship. In 2010, for the first time since U visas were issued, The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced that the nation reached its capacity for the number of U visas that can be issued, which is 10,000 per fiscal year. Immigrants can still qualify for a U visa after the nationwide cap is reached; however, their cases are held over until the next fiscal year. In 2009, 6000 U visas were issued.
While it’s not uncommon for victims of domestic abuse to live in fear of their partners, or to retract statements to police after they report incidents of violence, advocates say the situation is worse for immigrant women, who are often culturally isolated because they are being controlled by their partner or because they don’t know the language or the country very well.
“These women have special challenges. They are more fearful of the police because contact with the police could lead to contact with immigration [officials],” said Catherine Ward-Seitz, an immigration attorney with Bay Area Legal Aid, an agency that provides free civil legal advice, counsel and representation to low-income people in seven counties.
When immigrant women are being abused by a partner who has legal documents to live and work in the U.S, and the women do not, the batterers have the added control of threatening to report their victims to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Ward-Seitz said.
“If the abuser is undocumented, there is more guilt on her part in reporting him because she’s depriving her kids of their father and she’s losing the breadwinner. There are multiple negative factors,” she said, placing women in the vulnerable state of choosing between their safety and their immigration status.
The thought of deportation is also terrifying for many of these women, Ward-Seitz said, because some of them have no confidence that their home countries can protect them from an abusive spouse. Even a battered life in the U.S. is a better option to some than going back, where “their home countries do not offer the same provisions of safety as the U.S,” she said.
Hernandez, who is originally from Mexico, said she lived with her abuser in the United States for ten years and was married for five. She said she never knew her husband was a citizen until the threats to report her to ICE became more frequent. He would say to her, she said, that ICE would deport her but they wouldn’t deport him. Hernandez’s two children are also American citizens, by birth, which means Hernandez could be separated from them, if deported. Her fear of being deported to Mexico was overwhelming.
“Mucho terror,” (so much terror), she said, explaining her panic.
Except for work, Hernandez was isolated. She had three jobs to support her husband and her two children—a daughter, who is now 9 years old and a son, 21.
“I felt very controlled,” she said, speaking through a translator. “I was a slave to work. I had to pay to maintain him and the kids and he would just take the checks from me.”
“It was a very difficult situation, but it was normal for me. I didn’t know how to leave,” she said.
Hernandez reported her husband to the police approximately ten times, she said, but each time the abuse got progressively worse. In the final years of her marriage the violence kept increasing.
The last time she reported abuse to the Richmond Police Department was in 2010. The officer who responded to her case gave her a card for Bay Area Legal Aid. Hernandez called them a few days later to get help with acquiring a restraining order.
“I said to them, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do because if I report him again, he is going to deport me,’” she said. “My biggest fear was being deported.”
But Hernandez said she got the courage to work through her fear because silence has always been her worse enemy. When her U visa case finally got underway in late 2010, Ward-Seitz was the lead immigration attorney on a team of four. Bay Area Legal Aid also assisted Hernandez with filing for divorce, going through her custody battle and acquiring a U visa. Hernandez now considers Ward-Seitz family and credits her with saving her life.
Bay Area Legal Aid has worked on more than 1,500 visa cases for immigrant women in domestic violence situations, Ward-Seitz said. They have secured 456 visas so far. A majority were U visas and the others secured through self-petitions under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which was created in 1994.
Under VAWA, immigrant women who have abusive husbands or former husbands can submit their own application for residency and later apply to get a green card without the knowledge and consent of their abuser. Unlike the U visa, VAWA was created for the abused spouse or ex-spouse of an American citizen or permanent resident.
Ward-Seitz said that in both VAWA and U visa cases, watching women become empowered is part of what makes her job worthwhile.
“Most of our clients have already done the hardest part. They have made the report, gone to the police, and sometimes left their husbands by the time they get to us,” she said. “We try to reassure them and encourage them through the process.”
Hernandez remembers needing that encouragement. Even now with her U visa in hand, it’s hard to think about what her life would be without it, she said. For a moment she fiddles with two blue and white business cards she pulled out of a small metal box in her purse.
“I used to sleep with these cards,” she said turning them face forward to reveal the lettering: “Bay Area Legal Aid: Attorney Catherine Ward-Seitz.”
“I was so scared immigration was going to come to my door and I wanted to have it to show them,” she said.
But “la migra” never came. Instead she received a phone call in January, 2011, with Ward-Seitz’s voice on the other line. “Your U visa has been approved!” she said.
Recalling the moment, Hernandez smiled. “I thought this is impossible. This is a dream,” she said. Within two days she applied for a Social Security card, enrolled in English classes and got a driver’s license.
Her goal now is to encourage women who are now trapped in situations that were just like hers once was. “I want to tell them they can do it, it’s a process, but si se puede.”
“Sometimes I ask myself where I would be if I didn’t have that visa. It’s difficult to think about that. I’m very fortunate,” she said. “My life has changed completely.”
For more information on the U visa visit http://www.uscis.gov/ . To download an application for a U visa click on the tab “Forms” and select I-918 from the selections for Humanitarian Based Forms.
To contact Bay Area Legal Aid visit http://baylegal.org/ or call 510-663-4755 and press 8 for legal assistance.