U visas offer violence victims a way to stay

Elvira Baques advocates for victims of domestic and sexual violence at the Hope Crisis Center in Crete, Neb. She received a U visa in 2003 after becoming a victim of domestic violence and has since used her experiences to help others apply and receive U visas. | Kay Kemmet/Nebraska Mosaic

Story by Kay Kemmet | Nebraska Mosaic 

Writer’s note: While researching a separate article on citizenship for undocumented immigrants, I learned about a unique visa for victims of abuse, U visas. While reporting this article, and many other articles for Nebraska Mosaic, I conducted interviews in Spanish, giving a voice to Nebraska’s Hispanic immigrants.

The scars on Elvira Baques’ face are faded and difficult to see.

But the impact on her life hasn’t gone away.

Baques had been in the United States for only three weeks when her fiancé beat her up, repeatedly bit her cheek, causing the large scar, punched her in the face, and hit her with a telephone until neighbors heard her pleas for auxilio. Help.

“I was bleeding and totally trying to fight for my life,” Baques said recently. “He wanted to kill me.”

The beating lasted about five minutes, but Baques said, “For me, it was like an eternity.” She equates it to a fast-motion movie: Everything passed by in a blur.

She didn’t speak any English, and her only home was that of her abuser’s. Her only family in the U.S. was her 7-year-old son, Frank, who witnessed the abuse and tried to stop it.

“I was losing everything,” Baques said. “The plan of my life was lost.”

Baques, who immigrated on a tourist visa, considered returning to her home country, Mexico, but decided to stay and testify against her abuser. The domestic violence advocate who worked on Baques’ case suggested she apply for a U visa.

The United States approves 10,000 U visas each year to encourage victims of physical and emotional abuse to report their crimes without fear of deportation. The victims must have reported the crime to police and assisted in the investigation.

“Without this tool, there is a concern that someone can wind up being deported for reporting a crime,” said Jim Peschong, Lincoln’s chief of police.

Modesta Perez lived with that fear.

“Mi vida fue muy dificil,” Perez said. Her life was difficult.

She was living with a man who didn’t pay rent, utilities or food costs. When she told him to leave her in peace, he hit her. She was afraid the beating would continue. She called her son who, in turn, contacted the police.

Perez feared deportation because of the situation in her home country of Guatemala. She hasn’t returned since immigrating to the United States 15 years ago. In her home country, she said it’s dangerous. Jobs are more demanding but don’t pay as well, and her family doesn’t support her. When she lived in Guatemala, she worked as a live-in housekeeper and nanny.

Now she works as a busboy and host at Village Inn. While it’s not her dream job, she said it allows her to work and then come home and relax. Perez knew her status as an undocumented immigrant made her vulnerable, but she chose to cooperate with police. At that time, she didn’t know the U visa existed.

With the help of Catholic Charities of Omaha, Perez applied for a U visa and was accepted in 2009. Last September, she became a legal permanent resident and plans to pursue becoming a citizen. Perez thanks God for helping her and routinely points to her Bible as she tells her story.

“El nos da la luz,” Perez said in Spanish. God gives us light.

The U visa is more than a work permit. It empowers the recipients by giving them the ability to get a driver’s license, open a bank account and pursue other opportunities in the United States. Baques received her U visa in 2003, and with it, was able to get a job and attend English classes.

“With the legal documents, everything changed,” Baques said. “It was like going through the darkness into the light.”

Now 10 years after her abuse, Baques is a legal permanent resident and helps others apply for U visas as a bilingual advocate for Hope Crisis Center in Crete, Neb.

Baques helped more than 10 undocumented immigrants receive U visas last year and about 20 clients the year before. None of her clients have been denied for a U visa.

“I think it’s wonderful that she’s trying to give back to others and help them and really playing a major important role,” said Max Graves, executive director of the Center for Legal Immigration Assistance, an organization that offers discounted legal services to all immigrants who need — but can’t afford — the service of an immigration attorney.

In a way, undocumented immigrants are the perfect victims of these crimes. Many applicants for the U visas can’t work because of their immigration status, don’t have a driver’s license and can’t speak English. Their abusers can control their lives completely, threaten to report them to immigration officials and have them deported, Graves said.

Graves helped Baques apply for a U visa and become the first woman in Nebraska to receive the deferred action visa. His agency files the U visa paperwork for free even though it’s a lengthy process. He also reviews Baques’ cases and represents her clients in front of the Omaha Immigration Court.

After Baques was assaulted, she lived in a homeless shelter for 10 days with her son until a local Latino family offered her a place to live. She slept on the floor but said that didn’t matter, because she was just happy to have a place to stay. She had no money and, with her limited status, was unable to work.

Baques emigrated with plans to marry her long-distance boyfriend, a Guatemalan immigrant living in Wilbur, Neb. After six months, when her tourist visa expired, Baques became one of the many immigrants who live in the U.S. with expired visas.

U visa applicants must prove that they’ve suffered mental and physical abuse with a personal declaration. However, the abuse can be difficult to talk about especially when it’s recently occurred.

“It is very difficult for them to talk about it,” Graves said.

Many of the victims also are uneducated and do not speak English. They almost always need the assistance of a translator, Graves said. When Baques works with a client, she said she typically must type the documents and translate them from Spanish to English.

In addition to the personal declaration, applicants must have identification, a birth certificate and a valid passport.

U visa applicants also must have proof that the crime was reported to the police along with a signature from the head of the police department or sheriff, prosecutor or judge.

“It is a tool for law enforcement to reach out to the immigrant community (and) help encourage more immigrants to come forward,” said Jossy Rogers, program director for immigration and legal assistance services at Catholic Charities of Omaha. Her organization also provides assistance to immigrants who cannot afford an immigration attorney’s fees.

Former Lincoln police chief Tom Casady said he signed about 80 percent of the U visa applications he received, about 8 to 10 applications each year.

“They ask you to certify that the person has been helpful in the prosecution,” said Casady, who served as chief of police from January 1994 through May 2011 when he was appointed public safety director.

Peschong, the current chief of police, said he views each application on its own merit but rarely signs a U visa petition. Peschong looks at the severity of a crime and how the applicant has assisted police and prosecutors in bringing the abuser to justice, he said.

“There are only 10,000 issued every year; the last thing I want to do is add to a bureaucracy that would keep someone else who is more deserving to be able to do this,” Peschong said.

Both Peschong and Casady said they are wary to sign applications for fears of fraud.

“It creates this unfortunate situation where you might be encouraging some people to falsely report a crime,” Casady said.

From Graves’ end, the process of working with police departments across Nebraska can be frustrating. He said some police officials are very cautious to sign the applications, and some refuse to sign all petitions without reviewing the individual cases.

“Sometimes the police are very difficult to work with,” Graves said. “We have these problems constantly.”

Graves screens each application before asking a member of the justice system to sign the application to guard against fraud, he said. If a U visa application seems weak, he won’t pursue it further. The final decision on the success or failure of an application lies with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Rogers follows a similar policy. She doesn’t want to jeopardize future cases by presenting plausibly fraudulent cases, she said.

In Baques’ case, the court evidence from her abuser’s trial — he was sentenced to 12 months in jail — medical evidence of her injuries and her own testimony helped her receive a U visa.

“I think it is a great tool for what it is set out to do and that is to aid law enforcement and prosecutors,” Peschong said.

When Graves was helping Baques to apply, the process was still new and there weren’t any official regulations on how the application process should work. Even though the law was passed in 2000, U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services didn’t release regulations and forms until three years ago, Graves said.

Just 10 years later, the majority of clients Graves helps are applicants for U visas. Last year, the Center for Legal Immigration Assistance helped 86 women receive U visas.

Graves also helps undocumented immigrants who quality apply for the Violence Against Women Act, which was just reauthorized by President Barack Obama in March. The act mostly applies to victims of domestic abuse who are married to or the children of a legal permanent resident or citizen of the U.S. While a police report isn’t required, there are additional requirements like a marriage certificate.

Unlike applicants for the U visa, petitioners who qualify for the Violence Against Women Act can receive temporary status as soon as they apply, which qualifies them for federal services like welfare and food stamps.

In these cases, the fact that an immigrant is undocumented tends to be part of the abuse, and their spouse or relative may threaten to report them to immigration if they report the abuse, Graves said.

While U visas help many victims of abuse, the number of U visas that can be given out each year is limited even though the number of applicants increases each year. Last year, the government granted the allotted 10,000 U visas by Aug. 21, more than a month before the fiscal year ended on Oct. 1. Those applicants who could not be considered were moved to the next fiscal year adding backlog to the process.

Some advocates for the U visa petition say the allotted number of visas should be increased and want to see U visas included in immigration reform.

“In theory, if they continue to run out each year, it is going to continue to grow the backlog,” Rogers said. “We have people who have been waiting for more than a year to get their U visas.”

In addition to helping the abused, U visas also may be granted to family members like children, spouses, siblings under the age of 18 and parents. Rosalinda Juarez received her U visa this way.

When Juarez was 16, her mother applied for a U visa with Graves’ help. Her mother was a victim of domestic abuse in El Salvador but was covered by U visa because the abuse was against U.S. law. She received the visa in 2009 just after Juarez turned 18 years old.

When Juarez’ U visa expired last September on her 21st birthday, she had difficultly renewing the visa. She submitted the application on time, but her application was not approved until after her visa expired. She lost her job.

“That was my big news on my birthday,” Juarez said. “To lose that job was really bad for me.”

Juarez was out of work for about a month while she waited for her application to be approved. She wasn’t rehired for her position. While she has a new job now in a similar position with a different company, she took about a $3 an hour pay cut.

U visas also may apply to relatives. For Perez and Baques, the U visa covered their children. Perez has a 19-year-old daughter, Rita, who works at a day care because of her work permit.

Baques’ son, Frank, now 18, wasn’t the direct victim of abuse, but he still has difficulty dealing trusting strangers around his mother, Baques said. He also has nightmares and trouble sleeping.

The best way to heal, Baques said, is to talk about the abuse. She points at her cheek where faintly visible scars show the abuse she suffered more than 10 years ago.

“Being face-to-face with domestic violence changed the view of our life,” said Baques, now 45.

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