What Actually Happens When a Foreign National is the Victim of Crime? Understanding the U-Visa Program

Posted: April 23, 2018

In an all too familiar scenario, law enforcement gets called out to reports of yelling and screaming and a possible domestic violence situation.  The police officers arrive and see a woman crying, with a black eye and bloody lip who says her boyfriend hit her.  The suspect boyfriend denies anything happened, but has blood on his knuckles and is arrested.  But, what if the victim is an undocumented immigrant?  Will she be deported?  Will she be afraid to ask for help?  Will the suspect threaten to report her to immigration officials hoping she will drop the charges?

It is for all of the concerns noted above, that the United States Congress created the U Nonimmigrant Visa (U-Visa) with the passage of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (including the Battered Immigrant Women's Protection Act) in October, 2000.  According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the legislation was intended to strengthen the ability of law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute cases of domestic violence, sexual assault, trafficking of aliens, and other crimes, while also protecting victims of crimes who have suffered substantial mental or physical abuse due to the crime and are willing to help law enforcement authorities in the investigation or prosecution of the criminal activity. The legislation also helps law enforcement agencies to better serve victims of crimes.

All victims of a violent crime are eligible to seek U-Visa protection.  "Violent" crimes are broadly defined and even include violent misdemeanors.  A U-Visa allows victims of crime to remain in the United States irrespective of their immigration status, and may also allow application by the victim's children and family.  This allows undocumented aliens who have been victimized to have the ability to safely participate in the criminal justice system without fear of deportation.  

The El Dorado County District Attorney's Office, like every other District Attorney's Office, takes our responsibilities under the U-Visa program seriously.  It is vital that we help all victims of crime, including illegal immigrant victims of crime, feel safe in the criminal justice system and that they are never afraid to ask for help.  The District Attorney's Office's function in the U-Visa application and approval process is to certify that the U-Visa applicant was a crime victim and that the applicant cooperated with law enforcement during the investigation and prosecution of the case. 

A request normally starts with the El Dorado County District Attorney Victim/Witness Advocate making the initial review and evaluation.  The advocate then becomes the victim's direct contact for the District Attorney's Office.  The U-Visa request is sent to the Chief Assistant District Attorney for a final review and certification determination.  Under the U-Visa law, the victim must currently be cooperating with, previously cooperated with, or could in the future be helpful with, an investigation or prosecution.  The investigation does not have to result in the arrest, filing of charges or conviction for the victim to be certified by the District Attorney.

For example, a recent 22 year old U-VISA applicant in our county was in the United States on a temporary work visa when she was kidnapped and violently assaulted. The suspect threatened to kill the victim if she did not remain silent.  The victim's U-Visa application was signed off by our office and her application was granted.  Thankfully, due to her courage and her willingness to testify at trial, her attacker, Manual Ovidio Ramos-Munoz, was convicted and sentenced in January, 2018 to 183 years to life in prison. 

The U-Visa program is targeted to help the victims of crime who may fear reporting that they were victimized.  Recently proposed federal legislation, H.R. 5058, seeks to increase the number of approved U-Visa applications and protect even more undocumented immigrant crime victims.  The U-Visa program, and legislation which seeks to expand its protection, are great examples of laws that help keep our society safer, that help hold all criminals accountable, and that seek to better protect the most vulnerable in our society.