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When I first came to Louisiana in 2007 to work with Catholic Charities in my first job as an immigration lawyer, I participated in regular meetings with the New Orleans Police Department as it worked to enhance its outreach to the immigrant community.

The NOPD and other community stakeholders were very concerned about the safety and vulnerability of the immigrant community.

Criminals were deliberately preying on immigrants (usually construction workers), calling them “walking ATMs” because they were unable to open bank accounts due to their lack of ID and carried around significant amounts of cash. 

Our law enforcement partners recognized that immigrants’ fear of deportation kept them from reporting crimes that they had suffered and from following through on investigations.

Immigrants often make the understandable calculation that it is better to suffer in silence than to report crimes. Criminals figured this out and took advantage. They knew that targeting immigrants meant a good chance of a high payoff, with a lower risk of being caught.

One of the tools we proposed to build immigrant trust and cooperation with law enforcement was the “U visa.” The U-Visa program began in 2000 as an attempt to build trust between the immigrant community and law enforcement.

Congress created the U visa to: 

“strengthen the ability of law enforcement agencies to detect, investigate, and prosecute cases of domestic violence, sexual assault, trafficking of aliens, and other crimes… while offering protection to victims of such offenses in keeping with the humanitarian interests of the United States. This visa will encourage law enforcement officials to better serve immigrant crime victims and to prosecute crimes committed against [noncitizens].”

This text is from Section 1513 of the 2000 Violence Against Women Act (“VAWA”).

U-visa protection in Louisiana

Here are some of the crimes that qualify for U visa protection in Louisiana and throughout the U.S.:

  • Domestic violence
  • Sexual assault
  • Human trafficking
  • Kidnapping or abduction
  • Assault
  • Felonious assault
  • Involuntary servitude
  • Murder or manslaughter

The law only allows 10,000 of these visas per year. This has led to a significant backlog in applications, with wait times reaching five years, if not more. In 2020, there were over 150,000 people on the waiting list.

New guidelines

One of several important developments under the Biden administration has been the creation of a new option for applicants with “prima facie” approvable cases (cases that at first glance appear to satisfy legal requirements).

Here are some important things to know about the new policy:

  • It creates a preliminary review of the U visa petition to determine whether the petition is “bona fide”. This is intended to be a faster review process than was currently in place.
  • If USCIS makes a “bona fide determination” (“BFD”), applicants will be granted deferred action from deportation. “Deferred action” is a form of protection from removal while USCIS works through a complete review of the petition.
  • While in deferred action, applicants will be granted work authorization documents
  • The BFD process is completed only after the petitioner’s biometrics (fingerprints and photo) have been taken.
  • Derivative petitioners will also benefit from the BFD process.

Not everyone who petitions for a U-Visa will automatically receive these benefits, however. As stated above, USCIS will have to find that their application appears to satisfy the legal requirements at first glance.

What this means for immigrants in Louisiana

If you are applying for a U-Visa, chances are you’re on the very long waiting list. What this new policy means for you is that you may get protection from removal and work authorization faster before getting a final approval on your case

If you’re thinking about applying for a U-Visa, but you’re not sure if your case qualifies, talk to a Louisiana immigration attorney. They’ll be able to help you figure out if your case qualifies under the law.

If you’re already on the waiting list, it’s important to verify that you’ve filed the required application to get the work card subsequent to a BFD. If you haven’t yet done so, you can supplement your petition now to avoid unnecessary additional delays for work authorization.

If you’re just starting the U petition process, the good news is that this policy is designed to significantly reduce your wait time to get protection and work authorization.

Contact a New Orleans Immigration Lawyer today

Pelton + Balducci can help you figure out what you need to do to take this crucial step toward building your life here in New Orleans, and in the United States more generally. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation and talk about your case.

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