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A visa program created to help law enforcement puts immigrant victims at risk instead

FILE - In this Aug. 17, 2018, file photo, people arrive before the start of a naturalization ceremony at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Miami Field Office in Miami. One supposed feature of the U visa program is a faster track to citizenship. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)
Wilfredo Lee
FILE - In this Aug. 17, 2018, file photo, people arrive before the start of a naturalization ceremony at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Miami Field Office in Miami. One supposed feature of the U visa program is a faster track to citizenship. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)

Luis Melean remembers his friend stopping in the middle of the street screaming, "We're being mugged!" Two men approached the duo in Memphis, Tenn., with guns and asked them to hand over any cash they had. Neither Melean nor his friend had any.

"It was really scary how close the guns were to us and we thought that night was the end," Melean said. "But as they walked away, they said, you're lucky we're not going to kill you tonight."

This was not the first time Melean had encountered something like this. When he lived in his home country, Venezuela, he got mugged three times in 30 days. It's one of the reasons his family chose to flee Venezuela and seek asylum in the U.S. in 2017.

But unlike those earlier incidents, the mugging in Memphis seemed to have a silver lining: a chance at a visa to stay in the United States.

As a victim of a crime in the U.S., he could apply for the U visa, a type of visa given to immigrant victims of certain crimes that presents an opportunity for a faster pathway to citizenship.

That was four years ago, and he's still waiting. He's not alone.

NPR spoke to 17 U visa applicants, each of whom have been waiting for two to seven years for their visas. They describe a program whose years-long delays put them in immigration limbo, spending months helping law enforcement catch their perpetrators while trying to survive in the country without the means to work legally.

"The goal was to be able to hold the crime offenders accountable and at the same time offer help and protection to the victims," Leslye Orloff said. She was one of the lead drafters of the U visa program when it was created in 2000. "It absolutely was not intended to take that much time."

The U visa was created as part of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act of 2000. It was intended to help law enforcement investigate what the government calls "serious crimes," such as domestic violence, torture and trafficking.

It also is meant to encourage more reporting of crime in undocumented immigrant communities, enhancing law enforcement/immigrant relationships and offering protection to victims. The law set an annual cap of 10,000 visas.

Orloff says this visa is a two-way street. Applicants only become eligible for the visa if certifying agencies — like law enforcement — deem them fully cooperative in helping to catch their perpetrator.

However, there are no standards defining what being fully cooperative means. According to a report published by the University of North Carolina School of Law, access to the U visa depended on where the crime occurred. Certification policies were different depending on the state, city and county, varying from denying all petitions to only certifying if the perpetrator was caught.

And there's a large backlog of cases waiting to be reviewed. According to the latest report from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which oversees the program, more than 300,000 U visa applications are pending.

Applicants are usually advised by lawyers to not leave the country, which typically means having to wait, without the legal ability to work, for years.

Shelley Johnson is the director of the Survivors' Project with Mid-South Immigration Advocates, an immigration law nonprofit, in Memphis. She says that her clients do things like mow lawns, clean houses or babysit to survive.

"So most folks who have new visas pending with USCIS are undocumented and are working whatever sort of job they can get," Johnson said. "It's not a livable wage and it's not enough to support a family either."

An update was added to the process in 2021, which allowed waiting applicants to apply for a work permit. But according to multiple lawyers who work regularly with U visa applicants, this process has not significantly helped applicants because it could still take more than four years to attain a work permit.

Orloff said that waiting for the U visa puts the applicants in a vulnerable position to be revictimized in the workplace.

"When people are working undocumented, they're more at risk for sexual assault, sexual harassment, physical abuse, wage theft, all of those kinds of things that are debilitating and dangerous and abusive," Orloff said.

When Melean was waiting for a work permit, he said he worked 13-hour shifts in a warehouse and got paid about $9/hour. If he asked for days off, he was asked to not come back, he said.

"Because you don't have documents, they force you to work," Melean said. "You don't really have a voice because you pretty much have to do whatever you can to have a roof over your head and be able to eat."

Melean got a work permit through his asylum application but most U visa applicants don't have that option.

A 2022 federal report found that the U visa program was not being managed effectively and was susceptible to fraud. It cited a growing backlog, no system to accurately track the number of visas granted per year and no tracking of fraud investigations.

Johnson says that congressional change, especially raising the 10,000 visa cap, could help reduce the backlog and help applicants get work permits faster.

"I think that the system in itself being so broken is one of the hardest things to deal with," Johnson said. "So it is sometimes hard to find the motivation to keep doing this work, especially because you file a petition and it just goes into the abyss for half a decade."

NPR reached out to the USCIS for comment and received a statement saying the agency is committed to restoring faith in the immigration system, and is working to reduce backlogs by opening a new visa processing center earlier this year.

Melean said change can't come soon enough.

"Being in limbo is like being trapped," he said. "Every aspect of your life is up in the air, and not being able to get a decent job affects your quality of life."

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Tirzah Christopher
Tirzah Christopher is the 2023 Roy W. Howard fellow at NPR. An international investigative reporter, she graduated in December 2022 with a master's degree in investigative journalism from Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.