Program to Help Immigrant Crime Victims ‘Broken,’ say Advocates

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The U Visa program, carved out for people without legal status who become victims of serious crimes — or in some cases, witnesses — and help law enforcement solve them, is broken, immigrant advocates say, leaving applicants waiting years for a decision — sometimes without permission to work or protection from deportation, reports the Associated Press. Many applicants are women and children who have endured horrific abuse or trafficking. The process is so fraught that some advocates are working with lawyers to sue the government to force it to issue decisions on individual applications. Created in 2000, the U visa program was tucked into wider legislation to fight human trafficking and violence against women.

Lawmakers designed it to encourage those in the U.S. illegally to report crimes — without fear of deportation — and make prosecutions easier. However, too few are granted, and local politics often determine whether they’re even offered. When a decision does come, about 85 percent of applicants are approved, government figures say. But so few U visas are available, they’re put on a waiting list. That at least provides protection from deportation and permission to work. Advocates have pushed for changes for years, saying a massive backlog — over 160,000 cases, according to federal data — and a lack of protection from deportation during the years-long application process has frayed the U visa’s effectiveness. Federal law limits U visas to 10,000 annually. Several times that number apply, and efforts to raise the cap have been captive to the wider immigration stalemate in Congress. In immigration legislation proposed by Democratic lawmakers, the annual cap on U visas would increase to 30,000 and applicants would get work authorization.

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