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.
"Our commitment is to make sure that the final regulations are all-encompassing and are well thought out," he said.
Immigration officials had granted temporary approval -- which essentially means they held off on initiating deportation proceedings -- to 7,163 U visa applicants as of last month. They denied 1,644 applications.
An immigration lawyer in the District took Ibeh's case for free when she knocked on his door in 2002. He was moved by Ibeh's story, which she tells in painstaking detail, nonchalantly rolling up her pant legs to show her scars.
Ibeh, born into a comfortable Nigerian family, fell in love with a young, dashing government official. She said she later discovered he had a dark and terrifying side. Efforts to reach her ex-husband, Bede Uchenna Ibeh, through the Nigerian Embassy, were unsuccessful.
Ibeh said the abuse began shortly after her daughter, who is now 15, was born. She said her husband became violent when the couple fought, including two instances, in London and Nigeria, in which she ended up at a hospital. She forgave him each time, she said, because he was the breadwinner, she has completed only high school and the thought of raising three children by herself was daunting.
In May 2000, her husband was transferred to the Nigerian Embassy in Washington, and the couple moved into a large house in Silver Spring. But soon after that, Ibeh said, her husband told her he intended to live with another woman and gave her a deadline to find another place to live. She resisted and, she said, he became violent again, prompting her to get a restraining order and drawing the interest of Montgomery County police.
Officials with the Montgomery state's attorney's office notified the State Department that they intended to charge Bede Uchenna Ibeh with assault. The federal agency asked the Nigerian Embassy to waive his diplomatic immunity. He left the country before the charge was filed, but an arrest warrant charging the 45-year-old man with second-degree assault awaits if he returns.
After his departure, Ibeh moved into a domestic violence shelter in Montgomery. She, like others whose U visa applications have been provisionally approved, is eligible for a work permit that must be renewed yearly and costs $180. Because she also must apply for permits for her children, the family has spent nearly $3,000 in immigration application fees.
She has held numerous odd jobs, mostly through temp agencies, but said that most prospective employers lose interest when they learn that her work permit is valid for only a few more months. She has struggled to explain to employers the complexity of the U visa situation and can make no earnest assurances that she will become a permanent resident. Having faced eviction numerous times, Ibeh, who retains the poise and wardrobe of a diplomat's wife, has found herself begging for menial jobs, including a job mowing lawns.
She said the prospective employer was stunned when she expressed interest in the job. "Are you crazy?" she recalled him asking.
The Montgomery state's attorney's office this year certified about 15 U visa applicants, a tool it said has been useful in domestic violence cases such as Ibeh's. But immigration advocates said many law enforcement agencies have been far less enthusiastic.
Vanna Slaughter, director of the immigration benefits division at Catholic Charities in Dallas, said she routinely scours the crime blurbs in her hometown newspaper, looking for prospective applicants. But she said many law enforcement officers have been reluctant to sign off on applications.
"They think they're helping an illegal alien," she said, describing the response she has received from some investigators. "Some of them don't get it. This was a tool designed for them. It was created with law enforcement in mind. It was not intended to be this benevolent program."