Maria Orozco sits on a brown vinyl couch in her mobile home in Austin. Her big purse is splayed out on her lap as she digs around for her wallet, which holds her Texas driver’s license and a red, white and blue Employment Authorization Card. “When I got my license, oh my God, I was super happy," she says.
These cards are the product of a visa process she started three years ago. Orozco’s special visa, called a U Visa, was created by Congress 15 years ago to give legal status to immigrant victims of serious crimes if they help with criminal investigations.
Law enforcement officers and immigrant advocates pushed for the program because they want undocumented immigrants to feel safe reporting crimes—not just because it protects vulnerable members of the society, but because it’s good for community safety in general. Now there are many more applicants than visas.
For Orozco, getting the visa has been a slow process, but worth it. She got her visa last year. It allows her to live in the country legally, and after three years she can apply for her permanent residence.
“I’m happier than I’ve ever been because I feel like, for the first time, I’m living my life," she says. "I’m not being controlled by a man.”
Like Orozco, almost half of those (mostly women) who apply for U Visas are victims of domestic violence. When Maria left her hometown in Nicaragua 11 years ago at 3 in the morning, she didn’t have much of a plan. She made the decision out of fear of her boyfriend.
“The last time, he put a gun to my head,” Orozco says. “I thought, one day this man is going to kill me.”
Orozco finally called the police. As they took her boyfriend away in handcuffs he warned her, “You know what’s going to happen to you when I get out of here.”
So she left. She crossed the border illegally and settled in Texas. Then she met a guy at church – let’s call him Miguel. He didn’t treat her well, but, compared to her ex, Miguel seemed kind. They moved in together. One night he came home angry. He grabbed her and dragged her across the front yard. Her friend called the police.
Miguel was in jail for three weeks. When he got out, Orozco got back with him. Within a couple weeks he attacked her again and went back to jail. It went on like that. Eventually, they got pregnant and married.
One day Miguel punched Orozco in the face while he was driving. She called the police and – jail again.
“Being a victim of domestic violence is like being a drug addict,” Orozco says. “You can’t get out, really. You have to be strong to get out. If not, it’s like a sickness that eats at you every day.”
Congress designed the U visa program to protect women like Orozco, but legislators also set a limit on how many of these visas can be issued every year. No matter how many people apply and are eligible, only 10,000 U Visas are given out each year.
Applicants can get work permits once they’re deemed eligible for a U Visa, even if they have to wait years for the visa itself to become available. This permit is a huge deal—not just because it allows people to work legally, but because it protects them from getting deported until their visa comes through.
Before Orozco got her work authorization, she says, it felt impossible to leave Miguel.
“He knew I didn’t have papers, so he took advantage of it," she says. "He’d say, ‘You have to put up with me because you have three kids. Where are you going to find work? You’re here illegally.’”
Leslye Orloff, director of the National Immigrant Women's Advocacy Project, says Orozco’s experience is common. “We know that a significant portion of U Visa victims remain in the abusive relationship until they receive work authorization,” she says.
Orloff helped write the U Visa law back in 2000. Now, she works with lawyers, judges and law enforcement officers from around the country on this issue. She says the long wait has had similar consequences for women who are abused by employers.
“Victims continue working in abusive work environments. We know of cases where victims of rape in the workplace have been raped again while they were waiting," Orloff says.
In Orozco’s case, it took a year to get her work permit. Today, applicants can wait more than two years. By the latest tally, there are 62,000 applications pending.
“This is the worst that I've ever seen it in my over a decade of practice,” says Elissa Steglich, who runs the Immigration Clinic at the UT School of Law. “We're in a bit of a crisis, and the people who are suffering are the immigrants who Congress intended to protect.”
Like lots of applicants, Orozco heard about the U Visa through a friend. As word gets out, more and more people are applying.
“The past several years there have been breakthroughs in outreach in Central Texas for sure,” says Robert Painter, who runs Austin-based non-profit immigration services provider American Gateways. “As people saw success with their cases, word spread.”
Painter says the long wait times have consequences for him and other immigration attorneys, too. His agency can’t take on as many new cases now, because they have all these old cases to keep track of. They’re having a hard time finding the pro bono attorneys to take on these cases, too, because people are reluctant to commit to a process that can take up to six years.
He says he’ll keep helping people apply, though, and so will attorneys across the country.
“Unless something changes,” he says, “the backlog will keep growing.”
Lifting the 10,000 limit is up to Congress, so nobody’s optimistic that will change anytime soon. But Steglich and other advocates say there is something to be done: United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that handles visa applications, should make sure there are enough officers to review applications.
That, Steglich says, will help those on that long wait line "move forward with their lives," with a work permit in hand.
“They say it's a priority. They have done a great job generally, historically, in prioritizing and protecting victims,” Orloff says of the agency. “But, at this moment, the leadership has changed, and they are prioritizing other issues that are drawing resources toward other cases, and that is causing the delay in U Visas.”
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services wouldn’t comment for this story, but when applications have piled up in the past, they’ve been able to end the backlog. Advocates say it’s – at least in part – a matter of resolve. And, for people in the situation Maria Orozco was in three years ago, it could make a huge difference.
Orozco didn’t leave Miguel right away, but it didn’t take long once she started saving money.
“When I got my work permit, he saw that he couldn’t control me as much,” she says. “I started to feel independent, to feel that I was worth more than before. I decided to leave him. I didn’t have a reason to put up with a man who was going to be mistreating me all the time anymore.”
Steglich and her students want the same outcome for all their U Visa clients. They’ve asked the government to give them more detailed backlog numbers and information about how it decides which cases to prioritize in hopes of helping to find a solution. They’re not expecting a response anytime soon.