The short answer is that visa numbers are limited and there’s a substantial waitlist.
Congress capped the number of U visas at 10,000 per year (INA § 214(p)(2); 8 C.F.R. § 214.14(d)(1)). This means that only 10,000 applicants may be granted U visas each fiscal year. Only principal applicants (U-1) are counted toward the 10,000 visa cap. Derivatives (U-2, U-3, U-4, and U-5) are not counted towards the cap. A backlog has developed because the demand for U visas exceeds the supply.
If you apply for a U visa today, you can expect to wait at least nine months for USCIS to determine whether you are eligible for the U visa. To check average processing times for U visas and other applications, click here, but remember that individual processing times may vary significantly from case to case. If your application is approvable, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) will place you on a waitlist until a visa number becomes available (8 C.F.R. § 214.14(d)(2)). The older the petition, the higher the priority. New visa numbers become available every October 1, which is the start of the government’s fiscal year. To give you an idea of the wait time, at WLG, we’ve recently received approval notices for applications that were filed in 2012.
So what happens in the meantime? If you are on the wait list, USCIS will issue a deferred action notice to you. This notice merely indicates that you are the waitlist for an approval; it does not constitute an approval of your U visa application. If you are under deferred action, you are eligible to apply for employment authorization and you are designated as a low priority for deportation from the United States. To date, USCIS has not announced a policy on whether it will count the time spent under deferred action towards the three year continuous presence requirement for U visa holders to adjust status to lawful permanent residents.
While frustrating, the delay should not deter you from applying for the U visa if you are eligible. It is one of the only nonimmigrant visas to provide a pathway to residency and, potentially, citizenship. In addition, the U visa’s accompanying waiver waives grounds of inadmissibility that would otherwise bar many individuals from becoming residents. The U visa continues to be a great benefit for many people despite the backlog.
Check back on our immigration blog for further updates on the cap issue. If you have any questions regarding your eligibility for a U visa, do not hesitate to schedule a consultation with one of our immigration attorneys!