Nicole Marquez, A Ruth Chance Law Fellow who works with Equal Rights Advocates, a group concerned with securing equal rights for women and girls, is an advocate for the U-Visa program. Photo Mabel Jiménez

The U-visa is given to undocumented victims of certain crimes to provide temporary legal status and work eligibility in the U.S. for up to four years. It’s a nonimmigrant visa and only 10,000 are issued every fiscal year.

The program became active in 2007, and by 2010, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services had issued all 10,000 visas for the first time.

“The purpose of it was to make sure that people within immigrant communities call the police and report crimes because what was happening is that there were people who were not saying anything when crimes would happen,” said Nicole Marquez, an attorney with Equal Rights Advocates who assists undocumented women with cases of sexual assault at the work place. “It’s just a human rights issue, when people are in fear of deportation, or for some other reason don’t come forward and aren’t cooperative with law enforcement.”

In a March 16 SF Weekly article critical of the U-visa program, San Francisco Deputy Public Defender Stephanie Wargo was quoted as saying that those seeking a U-visa are so desperate to stay in the U.S. that they may exaggerate or fabricate crimes in order to do so.

“That’s really a far-fetched idea,” said immigration attorney Mario Salgado, who works pro-bono for the La Raza Centro Legal. “The police, especially SFPD, are very rigorous in standards regarding a U-visa. The victims have to have had a very traumatic experience.”

Imagine this scenario:

A young woman comes to the Bay Area to visit her husband, and during her stay, he becomes physically abusive, savagely beating her to the brink of death in front of her two hysterical children. The husband is promptly arrested, and it seems like an open-and-shut case, but there’s a problem—the victim is undocumented. In order to get a conviction, the district attorney will need her as a witness.

Salgado said that this is exactly what happened to one of his clients about two years ago. The young woman applied for a U-visa, which allowed her and her children to lawfully stay in the U.S. while she cooperated with police.

But while the U-visa has helped with the prosecutions and convictions of many violent criminals, some anti-immigrant activists, as well as some defense attorneys, see it as a convenient free pass to citizenship.

Jessica Vaughan, from the conservative think tank Center of Immigration Studies, was quoted in the SF Weekly article as saying the program is “a last-ditch Hail Mary pass” to avoid deportation.

Marquez disagrees: “Most people don’t even know about it so it hasn’t had the effect of, ‘Oh well hey my comrade said this and now I am going make up this crime,’” she said. “They are just trying to figure out ‘well I was raped at work, what do I do?’’

She added that many of the women are afraid to come forward in fear of losing their low-wage jobs that they feel maybe impossible to replace.

Salgado said he is upfront with clients and explains to them that the process is difficult and that not all applications are approved. Though it could lead to permanent residency, he explains that it is only a temporary and that this is not guaranteed.

All petitions, which are approved by adjudicators from the USCIS, must include information on how the victim can assist government officials in learning more about the crime, including investigation and prosecution of those that committed the crime. The victim must also be willing to work with local law enforcement.

In addition there are stiff penalties for those who attempt fraud or perjury themselves.

Out of the ten U-visa applications he may process a month, only three or four are approved.

“It’s very difficult to meet the standards of the police and DA, and it’s not quick,” Salgado said.

He added that the immigration debate, especially during hard economic times, will no doubt continue and that the U-visa may come under even harsher criticism by anti-immigrant groups, despite its value to undocumented crime victims and the justice system.

As for the young wife beaten half to death by her husband, Salgado said that after six years, her husband was finally deported and she was able to obtain a green card for her and children, thanks to the U Visa program.