Know the Laws:
UPDATED April 23, 2013
This page includes information about obtaining lawful status if you are the victim of certain crimes (including domestic abuse) and can obtain a certification that you are, have been or will be helpful in the investigation or prosecution of the crime.
U visa status (also known as U nonimmigrant status) was created by the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000.* It is designed to provide lawful status to noncitizen crime victims who have assisted, are assisting, or are willing to assist the authorities in investigating or prosecuting crimes that were committed against them.*1 The main purpose of the U visa is to encourage undocumented crime victims to help law enforcement investigate and prosecute crimes without fear of being deported.
The U visa status may be available to victims of domestic violence crimes, stalking, sexual assault or victims of certain other crimes (which can be crimes that have nothing to do with domestic abuse).
If you are a noncitizen victim of crime, you must meet ALL of these requirements:
A principal applicant is the person who applies for an immigration benefit, such as U visa status.
A derivative is another person (usually a family member) who may also receive lawful status through the principal applicant’s status. Since the family member’s status is "derived" from the principal applicant’s status, the family member is known as a “derivative” under immigration law.* Although U visa derivatives do not have to meet all of the eligibility requirements for principal U visa applicants, they do have to show they are admissible or they have to file a waiver if they are inadmissible.
To read about principal applicants (known as U-1) and derivatives (known as U-2, U-3, U-4, U5) in the context of U visa status, see What family members may be considered derivatives?
* USCIS website – Glossary
One of the basic requirements to obtain U visa status is that you are not in violation of the immigration law's "inadmissibility" grounds or, if you are, that a waiver is filed to ask that those violations be excused.* The inadmissibility grounds are reasons why someone may not be able to receive an immigration benefit, like being able to enter the U.S. or receive a green card. Some of the inadmissibility grounds include:
A waiver is a form that your lawyer can fill out to ask Immigration to forgive something that makes you inadmissible. For people applying for U visa status, all grounds of inadmissibility can be waived except for participation in Nazi persecution, genocide, or having committed any act of torture or extrajudicial killing. This waiver is discretionary, which means that your request may or may not be approved – it is up to Immigration officials.* If you are inadmissible under the crime-related grounds, Immigration officials will consider the number and the seriousness of the offenses you were convicted of. In cases involving violent or dangerous crimes or involving the security grounds (related to terrorism), Immigration will only approve the waiver in extraordinary circumstances.**
An immigration attorney should be able to determine if you fall under any of the inadmissibility grounds, and if there are exceptions or waivers available to you. To find help, please go to the International/Immigration organizations listed on our National Organizations page. You can also find the contact information of general legal services organizations, not immigration-specific, and referral services to private attorneys here: Finding a Lawyer. Please make sure that your lawyer is employed by (or gets help from) a national organization with expertise in U visas, since U visa waivers are different than most other waivers. Your lawyer can call ASISTA, a national organization that specializes in immigration training for professionals.
* INA § 212(d)(14)
** 8 CFR § 214.1(b)(2)
To complete your application for U visa status, your advocate or your attorney will have to get law enforcement or the proper certifying agency to fill out a U visa status certification. This certification is a form that states that you have been helpful, are being helpful, or are likely to be helpful to the authorities investigating or prosecuting the criminal activity.* From the moment you start to cooperate with the authorities, you will have to continue that cooperation without refusing or failing to provide information and assistance that has been requested in a reasonable way.** The definition of a "reasonable request" depends on the circumstances of each case and on factors such as the age of the victim, the trauma s/he suffered and if the victim's cooperation puts his/her security at risk. The certification also confirms that you are a victim of one of the U visa-eligible crimes and that you have provided useful information when requested.** For more information on who can sign a certification, see Which government officials and agencies may be able to provide the law enforcement certification that is required?
Note: If you are under 16 years old, your parent, guardian, or “next friend” who has information about the criminal activity can be the one that has been helpful, is being helpful, or is likely to be helpful to the authorities investigating or prosecuting the criminal activity for purposes of the certification.***
* INA § 101(a)(15)(U)(i)(III); 8 CFR § 214.14(c)(2)(i)
** See the certification form, I-918 Supplement B
*** INA §§ 101(a)(15)(U)(i)(II) & (III)
There are no fees for the application for you and your derivative family members.* Some of the related forms do have fees (i.e., employment authorization for derivative family members, inadmissibility waiver, biometrics, etc.) but those fees can be waived.
* See USCIS website – Forms
From the day that you apply for a U visa until you actually have the U visa in your hand, it could take up to 5 years or more. This long delay is for two reasons. First, there is a processing delay for U visas and so the US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) won't even look at your application for a few years. As of November 2016, USCIS is currently reviewing applications that were filed in June of 2014, which means that there is a nearly 2½ year wait before USCIS is even looking at the applications that are filed.* The second reason for the delay is that USCIS can only grant 10,000 U visas per year, which is commonly known as the "U visa cap." Once USCIS grants the 10,000 applications, they cannot issue any additional U visas for the rest of the calendar year.*1 However, USCIS does continue to work on U visa applications that have been filed. If an applicant would be eligible to receive a U visa (but can't get one since the cap has been met), USCIS places that "approvable application" on a waitlist until it is his/her turn to be issued a U visa.*2
While your approvable application is on the waitlist, USCIS puts you in "deferred action" status. Deferred action is not actually a legal status but it means that USCIS knows that you are in the country and you are eligible to apply for a work permit, which lasts for two years but can be renewed.*2
Applicants can expect to remain on the U visa waitlist for three years or more until a visa is available.*3 Once you get your U visa (if it is ultimately approved), you will get a four-year work permit since the U visa duration is a four year period.*4 After you have had your U visa for three years, you can apply for lawful permanent residence (your "green card") if you meet certain requirements.
* Information from ASISTA
*1 8 C.F.R. § 214.14(d)(1); see also USCIS website
*2 See 8 C.F.R. § 214.14(d)(2)
*3 Time approximation on waitlist is accurate as of 11/2016 as per ASISTA
*4 INA § 214(p)(3)(B)