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Undocumented Survivors Have Long Lived in Limbo. COVID-19 Is Making It Worse.

Undocumented immigrant survivors of violence could be waiting up to a decade to receive a U visa.

People hold signs during a rally in support of the Supreme Court's ruling in favor of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, in San Diego, California, June 18, 2020.

Part of the Series

Anna had recently given birth to her second daughter when two tall, masked strangers broke into her home in East-Central Texas. On that evening in early July 2010, the burglars came in through a backdoor and held a gun against Anna’s head. One of them covered her mouth, telling her not to make a noise or they would shoot. The little girls started crying as they held onto their mother tightly. Anna, who is originally from Pakistan and asked to be identified by a pseudonym due to fears about her uncertain immigration status, handed over her gold earrings, bracelets and two rings. After the strangers searched the house and found $2,500 in cash in one of the bedrooms, they proceeded to punch Anna in the face, hit her in the head and molest her. Before leaving, they told her they would be back.

She called the police to report the burglary and sexual assault, but no one was ever charged with the crimes. For days after the attack, Anna couldn’t sleep or eat. She just cried. “I felt like people were following me,” she said. “I felt unsafe all the time.”

Adding to Anna’s fears was a years-old deportation order threatening to separate her from her U.S. citizen children and husband. It wasn’t until 2017 that Anna learned through her immigration lawyer that she qualified for a special protection that grants temporary status for immigrants who have suffered psychological or physical harm and assists in investigations of crimes, regardless of how many years have gone by. Known as the U visa, it was created by Congress in 2000 as part of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act to encourage undocumented victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and other crimes to come out of the shadows without dreading deportation.

But for tens of thousands of immigrant survivors in the U.S., the promise of protection takes too long to materialize. Anna applied for a U visa in June 2017 and her case has been pending ever since, leaving her in a limbo the COVID-19 pandemic is only exacerbating.

Anna said she still has flashbacks and nightmares about the crime. She has been diagnosed with clinical depression and severe post-traumatic stress disorder. With time, Anna went back to studying and obtained her U.S. medical license, but she has struggled to find a full-time job as a doctor because of her unsure immigration status. When potential employers inquire about her ability to work legally in the U.S., she doesn’t know what to say. “I feel so nervous,” Anna said. “The big hospitals never call me back, even for volunteer work.” And although Anna has a temporary work permit as a result of another legal avenue she’s pursuing to fight her deportation, it is often rejected. When that happens, she moves on to another place, where maybe people will ask her fewer questions.

Before the coronavirus outbreak, Anna was volunteering at a clinic four or five days a week. She would ask patients about their medical history and measure their temperature and high blood pressure. Sometimes, if the doctors in charge allowed it, she conducted physical examinations and discussed diagnosis. But because of concerns related to COVID-19 Anna had to stop going into the clinic in March, which has taken a toll on her. It also doesn’t help that the gas station the family owns has seen fewer clients these days, affecting their primary source of income.

“It’s giving me a lot of mental stress and anxiety not doing anything and staying at home all day,” she said. “I want to go back to work.”

Like Anna, there are more than 153,000 immigrants waiting for a U visa to become available. Because there is an annual cap of 10,000 visas, the agency in charge of issuing them, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) places applicants on a waiting list. Once on that list, they receive “deferred action,” which makes them eligible for a two-year, renewable work authorization and safeguard from deportation. But as a result of an ever-growing backlog of cases and the agency’s delay in processing them, even that step is currently taking almost five years. During that time, those who are eligible for protection aren’t legally allowed to work and can be targeted for deportation.

“Even the more meritorious cases are sitting on a shelf for years,” Houston-based lawyer Javier Rivera said. He recently filed a lawsuit against USCIS on Anna’s behalf. “It’s against the whole idea of receiving an immigration benefit for surviving and helping law enforcement.”

Now, the coronavirus crisis is making undocumented victims all the more vulnerable. As layoffs and furloughs continue to impact households across the country, many can’t rely on unemployment benefits or the federal stimulus checks to support their families. Under shelter-in-place orders, survivors of domestic violence are facing more barriers to leave an abusive relationship and find temporary housing and legal assistance. And as a result of the chilling effect spurred by a Trump-era rule, families are wary of accessing economic aid and other benefits they are entitled to.

“COVID-19 is only exacerbating problems and adding fuel to fire that existed before,” said Cecelia Friedman Levin, a senior policy counsel with ASISTA Immigration Assistance, an organization that supports attorneys and advocates serving immigrant survivors of crime. “It’s not going to get better.”

Immigrant rights groups and lawyers have long denounced “unreasonable delays” in U visa processing times and asked for the annual cap to be raised or removed altogether. Every fiscal year since 2010, USCIS has given out all the allocated 10,000 visas and the queue of pending applications has gone up by 1,183 percent over the last decade. The number of petitions filed every year has climbed consistently, reaching a peak of more than 37,000 in 2017. Fewer applications started to come in since then, which experts attribute to a series of policy changes by the Trump administration that undermine the U visa process and discourage people from pursuing that legal option.

Those willing to go through the process now are potentially looking at as many as 10 years before actually receiving a visa — and even longer for a child or spouse who may apply as beneficiaries. The queue is moving so slowly that USCIS is currently placing cases on the waiting list that were filed in October 2015. Once cases get to the beginning of the line, as many as 85 percent are likely to be approved based on the agency’s consistent grant rates over the years.

While USCIS acknowledges that processing times will likely continue to grow, the agency is moving fewer cases forward, which it attributes to “resource constraints.” According to a recent USCIS trends report, in fiscal year 2018, 7,421 applications were put on the waiting list — about one-third of the number from four years prior, when it took the agency five months and not five years to do so. In a class-action lawsuit filed last September on behalf of thousands of U visa applicants, the Tahirih Justice Center claims that “USCIS has slow-walked the U visa process” and that the agency has repeatedly failed to make timely decisions on requests for work permits. When people can’t work to support themselves and their families, it becomes “a life and safety and health issue,” said Julie Carpenter, a litigation attorney with the organization.

Indeed, a 2014 survey by the National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project found that two-thirds of those who applied for a U visa were able to leave an abusive relationship after receiving a work permit and almost 80 percent could find a job. Without the ability to stand on their own two feet, survivors are often exposed to further violence. “Status and work authorization are critical to maintain safety and stability after victimization,” Levin said.

No Reprieve in Waiting

Anna dreamed of being a doctor since she was in middle school. In many ways, her prospects were confined to the bounds of tradition and a male-dominated society. From a young age, she was promised in marriage to an older cousin in exchange for land. But unlike other young women in Pakistan, Anna was encouraged by her parents to pursue higher education and after completing a five-year program, she received a bachelor in medicine and surgery.

While in school, Anna fell in love with her husband and they got married in 2006, despite facing resistance from both families. Right after the wedding, the couple left for the U.S., where Anna was supposed to study for the U.S. medical licensing examination. But when her mother fell sick, she went back home. Anna tried to return to the U.S. that same month, but she was turned away at the airport because her student visa had been revoked. She claimed she hadn’t known about it. In Pakistan, Anna said, she was punished for disregarding the customs and “dishonoring” her family by marrying her husband. Several of her relatives tried to force her to get a divorce. They also threatened and beat her multiple times — once leading to a miscarriage. Anna had heard about the case of a woman who was decapitated after refusing an arranged marriage and she was convinced she would sooner or later become the victim of an “honor killing” herself. In 2008, she fled to the U.S.

Because of her previous deportation at the airport, Anna no longer qualifies for asylum but for a higher-standard protection known as withholding of removal. In the past, immigration judges enjoyed the discretion to put cases on the back burner if there was a pending application for a protection like a U visa, so that the person wouldn’t be deported while waiting. But that practice has changed under Trump. And when Rivera, Anna’s lawyer, asked USCIS to expedite a decision on her U visa application, the agency denied it. “Unfortunately, an exact timeframe for the final processing of this case cannot be provided,” the decision stated.

“She was a victim of a serious crime, suffered trauma, provided evidence, has multiple U.S. children and is a licensed doctor,” Rivera said. “There’s nothing weighing against her.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Anna’s hearing for the withholding of removal case that was scheduled for March got postponed to September 2022. With court proceedings and visa adjudications slowing down or coming to a halt, people like her will likely remain without status and the ability to work indefinitely.

In response to the public health emergency, USCIS closed its offices for in-person, non-emergency appointments until early June, while continuing to adjudicate cases. But the agency, which is under the Department of Homeland Security, claims it could soon run out of money. On May 15, USCIS requested $1.2 billion in funding over a two-year period from Congress mentioning a budget shortfall from an estimated 61 percent drop in applications and, consequently, charged fees through the end of the fiscal year. The emergency funding proposal also includes a 10 percent surcharge to application fees, in line with a raise the agency had already proposed late last year. Without congressional intervention, a spokesperson said, USCIS will have to furlough around 13,400 employees beginning in early August. For some critics, the agency’s financial struggle can be better explained by an enhanced focus on vetting applications and stricter policies that have made USCIS increasingly inefficient.

Three years ago, when Anna found out the U visa was an option for her, she allowed herself to feel hopeful. “I was excited that something came up to relieve me in that long journey,” she said. But she has since found little reprieve in waiting. Anna sees a therapist and goes to the mosque where a preacher helps her “calm down.” She tries to keep herself busy to prevent bad thoughts from creeping in. Whenever she considers suicide, she tries to think of her daughters. But Anna still avoids interacting with her community as she expects more judgement and chastisement from them. When people ask her if she has a green card, sometimes Anna says the process is on its way.

“I wish I could practice [medicine] here, that I was like the other doctors,” she said. “But the main thing is that I’m alive. I’m good here.”

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