April 16, 2009
2000, Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, creating two new visa classes for certain immigrant victims of violence. The so-called T- and U-visas offer noncitizens temporary legal status in exchange for their cooperation in helping police officials investigate crimes.
Holy Cross Ministries, a CLINIC affiliate based in Salt Lake City, Utah, runs one of the busiest U-visa legal clinics in the United States. I recently spoke to Sister Sharlet Wagner, immigration program director at HCM, about her agency’s experiences working with victims of violence.
With just three lawyers and three BIA accredited representatives on staff, Holy Cross Ministries operates the only U-visa legal clinic in Utah that offers free initial consultations and low-cost services. This, along with the agency's strong reputation for quality legal work, has led hundreds of noncitizens to seek advice and assistance from HCM. Since opening in 2002, HCM has processed more than 500 cases from both primary and derivative applicants.
Most U-visa applicants are women who have fled abusive relationships. One HCM client, Yesenia, had suffered from domestic violence—including beatings, rape and humiliation—for 12 years because her husband had threatened to separate her from her sons and turn her in to immigration agents if she reported him. Following a particularly severe beating, however, she gathered enough courage to go to the police.
After being referred to HCM by a domestic violence shelter, Yesenia was screened by a staff attorney and deemed eligible to receive a U-visa. She was then assigned to a BIA accredited representative who helped her gather supporting material and file her visa application. Thanks to the help of HCM staff, Yesenia now has a work permit and is studying English at a local community college, paying for G.E.D. classes, and volunteering at her sons’ school.
Sr. Sharlet says that she is inspired by cases like Yesenia’s. "This work has deepened my compassion and my admiration for these women. They have suffered, and yet they remain strong, loving, hopeful and willing to reach out to others. They believe in their future.”
The work is not easy and often places serious emotional demands on HCM staff. In order to qualify for a U-visa, an individual must be able to show that he or she has “suffered substantial physical or mental abuse from criminal activity.” Staff members must help gather this evidence, and are often deeply affected by what they see and hear. In fact, lawyers who process U-visa cases on a regular basis may become “hardened” or develop a condition called “secondary trauma.” To prevent this, HCM has encouraged its attorneys and BIA representatives to share their stories with one another and has worked with a volunteer psychologist several times. Because of this effort, Sr. Sharlet says, “I see greater compassion among staff and a deeper understanding of what clients are going through.”
And the rewards are worth it. Sr. Sharlet and her staff at HCM have watched their clients gain self-confidence and hope for the future. “There is definitely a change from when we first see them,” Sr. Sharlet says. “It’s great to see.”
Laura Hill is a project assistant at CLINIC.