Visa Places Abuse Victim In State of Uncertainty

Lilian Ibeh, who lives in Rockville with her three children, was approved for a visa for victims of crime.
Lilian Ibeh, who lives in Rockville with her three children, was approved for a visa for victims of crime. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 13, 2006

After Lilian Ibeh's husband left his job at the Nigerian Embassy in Washington under the threat of criminal charges, the mother of three faced two bleak options.

She could stay in the United States illegally with the children or return to Nigeria, where she feared her husband would hurt her for accusing him of battery -- a charge that cost him a coveted diplomatic post.

In 2002, however, Ibeh found what initially seemed like a miraculous lifeline. She applied for a type of visa for victims of crime established by law in 2000 in an effort to foster trust between law enforcement agencies and immigrants. The initiative was warmly received by immigrant advocates concerned about the reluctance of some immigrants to report crime and cooperate with prosecutors.

Although Ibeh's application for what is called a U visa was approved temporarily, the actual visa remains unavailable because Department of Homeland Security officials have not drafted final regulations spelling out eligibility requirements and future options for visa holders. That has left Ibeh, her children and thousands of other foreign-born crime victims in limbo and has frustrated immigrant activists, who say the visa category has failed to live up to the lawmakers' vision.

"Other women are afraid to speak out because they are being called illegal immigrants, and they are afraid of being sent back to their abusers," Ibeh, 40, said during a recent interview at her Rockville apartment, as her children watched her fight back tears. "That's my fear. I'm just dancing in the air. They make you feel like you're neither to the right or to the left. You're in the middle -- stuck."

The U visa was a key provision of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act. The new visa elated immigration advocates, even though its main impetus was to give law enforcement officials a tool to keep undocumented victims and witnesses of serious crimes in the United States to testify or otherwise cooperate with authorities.

Legislators designed the visa for foreigners who could prove that they had been victims of a crime in the United States, had information about the crime and had helped or were willing to help authorities investigate or prosecute the case. Applicants have to submit a personal statement that is backed by a form signed by a local or federal law enforcement official.

Congress set a yearly cap of 10,000 U visas for principal applicants -- spouses and children are eligible for derivative visas -- but left key decisions about eligibility and the application process to immigration officials.

"All we act on right now are memos from headquarters," said Jeff Joseph, a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, referring to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the division of the Department of Homeland Security that handles immigration benefits. "There are so many unanswered questions."

For example, it is unclear whether people who are in deportation proceedings or have an unexecuted deportation order qualify and whether applications from people who entered the country illegally would be treated differently than those submitted by people who entered legally but stayed beyond their authorized time. It is also unclear for how long the visas would be issued and whether they would be renewable. U visa holders would not be eligible for permanent residency unless they qualified for a green card through other means.

Lawmakers initially set no deadline for final regulations. But last year, they attached a provision to an unrelated bill mandating immigration officials to establish guidelines no later than this past June.

Chris Bentley, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said final regulations are pending because the process is complex and involves numerous agencies.

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