Letter to House Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship

ICADV joined a coalition of national, regional, state and local organizations that assist and advocate on behalf of immigrant survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking in the United States to send a letter to the House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship, urging them to address the significant processing delays of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS).

We hoped to share our deep concerns about the undue hardship the processing delays are having on immigrant survivors and their families. In light of the recent decision to expand the ability of the Department of Homeland Security to remove undocumented immigrants without due process, we feel this need is more urgent than ever. The following is an abridged version of that letter:

Twenty five years ago in the bipartisan Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), Congress created the VAWA self-petitioning process for spouses and certain family members of abusive U.S citizen or legal permanent residents,  since Congress recognized that abusers often use immigration status as a tool of abuse and that immigrant victims and survivors may not be willing to reach out for help because of the threat or fear of removal.[1]

Congress established additional bipartisan protections for immigrants in 2000 with the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), including the creation of specific visa programs, because it realized that other abusers and perpetrators of crime often use the immigration system as a tool to further abuse and exploitation.

The T visa was established to assist victims of human trafficking, and the U visa was established to assist noncitizen victims of certain eligible crimes (including domestic violence, sexual assault, and trafficking) who are willing to assist in the investigation or prosecution of these crimes. In creating these new remedies for immigrant victims, Congress recognized the importance of fostering cooperation between undocumented victims and law enforcement agencies or other agencies tasked with investigating crimes, to protect individual safety as well as public safety.[2]

The effectiveness of these protections, however, are increasingly undermined by the significant delays in processing these humanitarian-based applications. These delays negatively impact law enforcement’s ability to enhance individual and public safety, with many law enforcement officers noting that the processing backlog could diminish the program’s effectiveness, as witnesses or victims may get deported before their cases are decided. One law enforcement officer noted in a recent report: “If word gets out that this does nothing for you, then people won’t be willing to come forward.”[3]

These delays have skyrocketed over the last several years and have created increased vulnerability and risk of danger for survivors.  VAWA self-petition now takes between 18.5 and 24 months to be adjudicated.[4]Current processing times for T visa applications are between 16 and 33.6 months[5], an exponential increase from FY2015 when these applications took just over six months to adjudicate.[6]

 

In the case of U visas, the delay is staggering, as there is over a 4-year backlog in the initial adjudication process. Current processing times for I-918 Petitions for U Nonimmigrant Status show that adjudications can take between 50.5 and 51 months.[7] This is the posted time that applicants must wait from the time their application is initially filed until their case is considered for the U visa waitlist, given the current 10,000 annual cap in the total number of available U visas.

The issuance of an actual 4-year U visa for a victim can take several years beyond this initial adjudication. This is a shameful delay that compromises the safety and well-being of applicants and their children.  In 2017, CIS Ombudsman Report to Congress, it was reported that there were 60 adjudicators working the U visa program caseload.[8] In the last two years, the number of adjudicators has not changed to meet the growing needs of the program, with recent reports showing there are only between 40 and 80 adjudicators to meet the demand of over 239,000 pending principal and derivative applications.[9]

Advocates have previously informed USCIS that these increased processing delays cause immense hardship to survivors and their families, and USCIS’ response has been insufficient.[10] Survivors encounter years-long delays waiting for the adjudication of their cases, while they also face other barriers like a lack of access to work authorization or other financial supports. Without access to these critical resources, survivors often struggle to provide for themselves and their children. To maintain power and control, abusers typically prevent survivors from accessing or acquiring financial resources on their own.[11]

A recent survey by the National Domestic Violence Hotline (The Hotline), National Resource Center on Domestic Violence and Casa de Esperanza: National Latin@ Network found that “two-thirds (67%) of survivors surveyed said that they stayed longer than they wanted or returned to an abusive relationship because of financial concerns, such as not being able to pay bills, afford rent/mortgage, or feed their family.”[12] Similarly, survivors who are facing these incredible backlogs risk potential deportation before their applications are adjudicated, which not only contravenes the purpose of these bipartisan protections established by Congress but also compounds trauma survivors have already endured due to abuse.

In addition to the harmful impact on victims and their families, processing delays also have a significant impact on victim services programs and advocates.  When victims are unable to access VAWA Self-Petitions, T-visas, U-visas, other immigration status, or deferred action in a timely or predictable manner, helping victims plan for their safety[13] becomes more complex and challenging.  Immigrant victims who lack employment authorization or timely access to evidence of qualified status have reduced access to housing and financial resources, often meaning lengthier stays in emergency shelter, and the inability to participate in specialized employment training programs, obtain housing supports or other critical programs intended to support victims in transitioning to safety and stability.

We are dismayed that instead of addressing this growing backlog, USCIS leadership continues its efforts to transform the agency into another enforcement arm of DHS, with USCIS leadership asking staff to volunteer to provide support to ICE, instead of focusing their work on addressing the backlog of 2.4 million cases.[14]  We call on the House Judiciary Committee to hold USCIS accountable for these egregious delays and to prioritize the need to protect immigrant survivors and their families from violence and exploitation.

The new Expedited Removal policy has been published with no public comment period before it is implemented, however, they will be taking feedback here.

Immigrant survivors of domestic violence working with advocates are eligible for legal assistance through ICADV’s Immigrant Legal Project. Please contact Magdalena Josipovic and she will provide you with referral paperwork.

Footnotes:

[1] See H.R. REP. NO. 103-395, at 26-27 (1993)(stating  “Consequently, a battered spouse may be deterred from taking action to protect him or herself, such as filing for a civil protection order, filing criminal charges, or calling the police, because of the threat or fear of deportation. Many immigrant women live trapped and isolated in violent homes, afraid to turn to anyone for help. They fear both continued abuse if they stay with their batterers and deportation if they attempt to leave”).

[2] Congress stated that the purpose of creating these provisions was to “strengthen the ability of law enforcement agencies to detect, investigate, and prosecute cases of domestic violence, sexual assault, trafficking […] and other crimes […] committed against aliens, while offering protection to victims of such offenses in keeping with the humanitarian interests of the United States.” See also section 1513(a)(2)(A), Public Law No: 106-386, 114 Stat. 1464. Congress found that “providing battered immigrant women and children . . . with protection against deportation . . . frees them to cooperate with law enforcement and prosecutors in criminal cases brought against their abusers.” Pub. L. No. 106-386, § 1502(a)(2), 114 Stat. 1464 (2000) (emphasis added).

[3]  Human Rights Watch. “Immigrant Crime Fighters: How the U visa Program Makes U.S. Communities Safer” (July 8, 2019) available at https://www.hrw.org/report/2018/07/03/immigrant-crime-fighters/how-u-visa-program-makes-us-communities-safer

[4] See USCIS Processing Times at https://egov.uscis.gov/cris/processTimesDisplayInit.do for processing times for I-360 VAWA self petitions adjudicated at the Vermont Service Center

[5] Id.  for processing times for I-914 Application for T Nonimmigrant Status processed at Vermont Service Center

[6] USCIS. “Historic National Average Processing Times for All USCIS Offices”, available at https://egov.uscis.gov/processing-times/historic-pt  The information in the chart is compiled using the Historic National Average Processing Times as well as the data from the latest USCIS processing times found https://egov.uscis.gov/cris/processTimesDisplayInit.do  The I-360 data is in the aggregate across all classifications in the Historical National Average; however, the current average is specific to I-360 VAWA self-petitions based on current processing times.

[7]  See USCIS Processing Times at https://egov.uscis.gov/cris/processTimesDisplayInit.do for processing times for I-918 Petition for U Nonimmigrant Status adjudicated at the Vermont or Nebraska Service Centers

[8]  See Annual Report 2017  Citizenship and Immigration Service  Ombudsman p.44 (June 29, 2017), available at https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/DHS Annual Report 2017_0.pdf;

[9] Zolan Kanno-Youngs.  “Trump’s Immigration Crackdown Has Blunted Police Efforts to Be Tough on Crime” New York Times (May 14, 2019) available at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/14/us/politics/trumps-immigration-visa-crime.html

[10] Sign on letter to USCIS regarding U visa backlog with USCIS Response (2016) available at https://asistahelp.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/2016-ASISTA-Sign-on-letter-on-U-processing-delays-and-response-1.pdf

[11] This is known as economic or financial abuse, which is “behavior that seeks to control a person’s ability to acquire, use, or maintain economic resources, and threatens their self-sufficiency and financial autonomy.” NNEDV. “Financial Abuse Fact Sheet” https://nnedv.org/?mdocs-file=10108See also https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/21/domestic-violence_n_6022320.html

[12] See Note 8 at 14.

[13] See, e.g., https://www.womenshealth.gov/relationships-and-safety/domestic-violence/leaving-abusive-relationship

[14] Aleaziz, Hamed, “Civil Servants Who Process Immigration Applications Are Being Asked to Help ICE Instead,” (July 17, 2019) available at:  https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/hamedaleaziz/uscis-immigration-applications-backlog-ice ; https://docs.house.gov/meetings/JU/JU01/20190716/109787/HHRG-116-JU01-Wstate-NeufeldD-20190716.pdf

 

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