By Alexandra Kanan
Alexandra Kanan is a first-year student in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. She plans to major in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics with a career goal of becoming an immigration lawyer.
The foundation of democracy in the United States is based on one social contract: the governed are to obey the laws of the government as long as their natural rights are protected. So what happens when the government declares that the rights of certain groups are not applicable? Unfortunately, this scenario is palpable for the estimated eleven million undocumented people in the United States. While undocumented people must obey the law, most will not be protected.
This grievance results in millions of people being too afraid of deportation to report crimes allowing violence to prevail both in and past border cities. Recognizing this fact, the United States created the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, which would include the U visa provision in 2000.
As the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) defines it, U visas are set aside “for victims of certain crimes who have suffered mental or physical abuse and are helpful to law enforcement or government officials in the investigation or prosecution of criminal activity.”  The qualifying crimes include domestic abuse, labor, sex trafficking, and various forms of physical abuse, among other crimes.
By obtaining this visa, one qualifies for a four-year permanent residence status for themselves and their family, along with a pathway to citizenship . All that is necessary to gain these rights is to file an I-918 form, provide a personal statement of the criminal activity, and cooperate with authorities when necessary. Yet, there remain several debilitating obstacles that stand in the way of a victim’s path to citizenship, the primary being the lack of visas to fulfill a high demand.
A limit of 10,000 U visas is granted a year, yet in recent years, they have been requested by over 25-30,000 a year . With a backlog of over 200,000 visas and an estimated wait time of at least seven years, victims are left to wait in fear of deportation or lack of protection against their abuser. Another issue is the process in which police decide the validity of I-918 petitions: a system often based on if they believed the petitioner cooperated enough. Yet in counties such as Miami-Dade and Orange in Florida, two counties with dense immigrant populations, authorities are only approving visas for those involved in cases that have been closed .
Upon the visa’s creation in 2000, it was argued by opponents that the policy would be taken advantage of by those seeking an entryway to a lawful residence. In practice, it has been law enforcement that has often refused to uphold their end of the agreement . The criteria for what qualifies as “cooperation” on the side of victims is not defined by the USCIS. Therefore local authorities can use victims’ information only to leave them vulnerable to deportation.
The U visa has served as a theoretical solution to a system where perpetrators could prey on undocumented victims and walk free. In reality, it has proven to be a one-sided deal where justice is sometimes served, but victims face punishment just as the abusers do. Hateful rhetoric surrounds the undocumented community. Anti-immigrant politics constantly push the notion that immigration leads to increased crime and stolen jobs without analyzing the nuances of the system.
Over seven million undocumented immigrants work in the United States. Most work for below minimum wage or in unlawful and unsafe conditions . Employers get away with shortcuts and abuse through threats of deportation unless that fear is taken away through programs such as U-visas. Whether it be an abusive employer, partner, or stranger, U-visas allow for safer communities by providing accountability toward offenders.
 “Victims of Criminal Activity: U Nonimmigrant Status.” USCIS, February 28, 2022. https://www.uscis.gov/humanitarian/victims-of-human-trafficking-and-other-crimes/victims-of-criminal-activity-u-nonimmigrant-status.
 “U Visa Attorney: What Crimes Qualify for U Visa, Eligibility & Benefits of U Visa Lawyers.” Scott D. Pollock & Associates, P.C., October 1, 2021. https://www.lawfirm1.com/non-immigrant-visas/visas-for-victims-of-criminal-activity/.
 “Pros and Cons of Applying for a U Visa | June 2022 - ILRC.” Accessed December 5, 2022. https://www.ilrc.org/sites/default/files/resources/june_2022_u_visa_pros_and_cons_of_applying_final22.pdf.
Morel, Laura C. “The U Visa Is Supposed to Help Solve Crimes and Protect Immigrants. but Police Are Undermining It.” Reveal, June 30, 2021. https://revealnews.org/article/the-u-visa-is-supposed-to-help-solve-crimes-and-protect-immigrants-but-police-are-undermining-it/.
 Rodriguez, Joshua. “U Visas: How the Program Is Endangering Those It Was Meant to Protect.” Niskanen Center, September 30, 2022. https://www.niskanencenter.org/a-broken-system-how-the-u-visa-program-is-endangering-those-it-was-meant-to-protect/.
The opinions and views expressed in this publication are the opinions of the designated authors and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal, our staff, or our clients.