“Lawyers Beyond Boundaries”- Pushing the boundaries to break down barriers for undocumented immigrants


                        Caitlin with the hard-earned U-Visa certification

                        Caitlin with the hard-earned U-Visa certification

During my summer internship at the Community Activism Law Alliance, I have learned quite a bit about the work that needs to be done to help break down the persistent boundaries that our undocumented clients face. This summer, I became familiar with the process for certifying U Visa petitions. For those of you who are not familiar with U Visas, let me first include an explanation of what a U Visa is, just to share a glimpse of the vast practical knowledge I have gained during my internship this summer.

If an undocumented person is a victim of one of twenty-six violent or serious crimes in the United States, and that person made a police report and/or cooperated with law enforcement, prosecution, or a judge, they may qualify for a U Visa. The U Visa program was enacted as a way to help vulnerable undocumented immigrants feel safe reporting crimes to police. Part of the U Visa process, however, is getting that police officer, prosecution, or judge to certify the U Visa supplement. This is key; If no one will certify, that person cannot apply for a U Visa.

Law enforcement agencies under law have discretion to certify U Visas. Many law enforcement agencies are highly cooperative and support the U Visa program. However, occasionally our clients come across agencies who are not so cooperative, even as a matter of their own policy. These agencies may be anti-immigrant, or simply lacking knowledge of the U Visa program. For whatever reason, if they refuse to certify, our clients will not be able to get a U Visa, and may remain vulnerable to their abusers or unable to seek immigration relief.

Marta (client name changed) came to the Community Activism Alliance seeking immigration relief. She had been sexually assaulted by a former partner, and had testified at trial to put him in prison. This made her eligible for a U Visa. However, the crime and the subsequent trial took place in a suburban county, and not in the city of Chicago, and so when attorney Nebula Li asked the Assistant State’s Attorney in that county to certify Marta’s U Visa, they told her that they did not certify U Visas. They would not assist Marta, a woman who had testified about a traumatic experience in her life at trial for them, any further.

By law, police officers and judges can also certify U Visas; so Marta was not out of options. When I called the suburban police department that investigated Marta’s assault, the receptionist told me that she “did not think they do that here.” I then called the office of the judge who helped Marta get an order of protection against her abuser. The judge’s sympathetic clerk had not heard of U Visas but told me that she was interested in learning more about it. I wrote her an informative letter, prepared the certification document, and sent her a packet.

A few weeks later, CALA finally received Marta’s U Visa certification in the mail. CALA’s motto is “Lawyering Beyond Boundaries,” because of the work CALA does to help people that typically no one else can help. The nice clerk however, must have misunderstood our letterhead and instead addressed her cover letter to “Caitlin Cervenk” at “Lawyers Beyond Boundaries.” Thankfully, the certification was filled out accurately, and we are now able to submit the client’s U Visa. This will put her on a path toward legal status, and hopefully permanent legal status.

The refusal of a prosecutor or any other law enforcement agency to certify U Visa applications is an extreme barrier to our clients’ security. Domestic violence crimes and sexual assault are two of the most common crimes that undocumented people experience, and because women experience domestic violence and sexual assault in numbers disproportionately higher than men, the refusal of law enforcement agencies to certify U Visa applications disparately impacts undocumented and vulnerable immigrant women. Further, had Marta’s crime happened in an urban county, the police and prosecutor would likely have been more willing to certify her application. Fortunately, a judge listened to CALA, and was willing to help Marta. CALA will now apply for a U Visa for Marta so that Marta get the relief she deserves.