The United States Citizenship & Immigration Service (USCIS) is currently in the midst of distributing all of the 10,000 U visas which are available for fiscal year 2016. What we at Wilson Law Group have begun to call “U Visa Season,” begins on October 1 of each year, and is over by the New Year. It is during this period that the Vermont Service Center (VSC) allocates all of the 10,000 principal U visas that are available for that year. Applicants who have not received their U visas by the beginning of 2016 are relegated to wait at least one more year for their coveted visa.
U visas are nonimmigrant visas which are available to victims of certain types of violent crime which occurred in the U.S. To qualify, victims must demonstrate that they cooperated with law enforcement in the investigation or prosecution of the crime, and that they suffered substantial harm as a result of the incident.
Why does USCIS only issue U visas during 3 months of each year? Why doesn’t the government just award these visas on a rolling basis as the applications are adjudicated? Because Congress has capped U visas at 10,000 per year for principal applicants. That is 10,000 U visas for the entire country. USCIS receives many more than 10,000 approvable U visa petitions each year. And therein lays the problem.
Several years ago USCIS started “running out” of U visas before the end of the fiscal year. Initially, this created a minor inconvenience. If USCIS gave out all 10,000 U visas by July, applicants only had to wait a few more months until the start of a new fiscal year on October 1. USCIS would replenish its’ stock of U visas on October 1, and suspended adjudications would eventually be approved.
Problematically, USCIS began running out of U visas earlier and earlier into the fiscal year. Thus, the current stagnation has emerged. The government now only needs 3 months to make all 10,000 annual U visas disappear. The visas appear in October and are gone by January. USCIS started maintaining a waitlist of “approvable” U visa petitions. Upon reviewing the initial U visa application, the VSC makes a prima facie determination of approvability. If approvable, the case gets placed on the U visa wait list. An applicant’s place on the waitlist is determined by the date of filing of the original U visa petition.
How long is the wait? Wilson Law Group is tracking the U visa approvals obtained by our clients for the current fiscal year. The approved U visas received by our office so far were filed with the VSC between May and August, 2013. More than a two year wait. In some cases two and a half years.
Waitlisted applicants are not completely without benefit. They are eligible for employment authorization for the duration of their time in limbo. However, time on the U visa waitlist does not count toward the 3 years “in U visa status” that applicants need in order to apply for permanent residence. Waitlisted applicants cannot lawfully travel outside of the U.S. Many U visa applicants have not had the ability to see family and friends in their home countries for prolonged periods of time. Every year spent on the waitlist delays the acquisition of permanent, stable status in the U.S.
The arrival of yet another “U visa season,” emphasizes to practitioners the acute need for legislative reform in this area. 10,000 annual visas are not enough. Congress should enact legislation to increase the cap. The U visa waitlist grows ever larger. In 2012, USCIS received almost 18,000 U visa applications. With an approval rate of approximately 80%, the waitlist will not be improving anytime soon. At what point will applicants decide that the delayed reward of a U visa is not worth the trouble? When the wait times become as long as a sibling petition from the Philippines? (Current wait time of 23 years)
U visas offer undocumented applicants a unique path toward permanent resident status in the U.S. U visa holders are granted benefits superior to those of many relatives of U.S. citizens; the ability to obtain status without leaving the U.S.; the ability to seek waiver of most grounds of inadmissibility. The U visa remains a valuable tool for undocumented clients. It would be a shame if potential applicants were deterred by the existence of a waitlist. The benefits of a U visa continue to outweigh the inconveniences of its application process.