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Despite a policy change in June, some North Texas U visa applicants are still waiting

Beatriz & Neithan cropped.jpeg
Courtesy of Beatriz Torres
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Beatriz Torres with her son, Neithan, who was killed in a car accident in 2015. The driver of the vehicle was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Torres and her husband applied for a U visa and are still waiting for their application to be processed.

The Biden administration has said it’s expediting the process for U visa applicants, so they can work while they wait for their applications to be processed. But a huge backlog of cases means many immigrants who've applied could be waiting months for work authorization.

Beatriz Torres and her husband had just turned onto a Dallas street near their apartment on a cold January night when a Dodge pickup slammed into their Toyota Camry.

The driver, who had a criminal history, fled on foot. Their 16-month old, Neithan Ramirez, was riding in the back seat and took the brunt of the impact. He died in a hospital three days later.

The 2015 wreck that killed their little boy devastated Torres and her husband José Jesús Ramirez. He also suffered a serious head injury. But the hit-and-run crime, which resulted in a 25-year prison sentence for the other driver, presented the couple with an opportunity. They learned they could apply for what’s known as a U visa, a type of visa that’s issued to victims of certain crimes. Eligible applicants have to help police in their investigation or prosecution of the crime.

In 2017, the couple applied, but as of now are still waiting for their applications to be processed.

“We’ve wanted to buy a house, but it’s hard because it’s a lot of money for the down payment,” she said.

When Torres applied for a U visa, she thought she would be placed on a waitlist, which allows applicants to apply for work authorization. But that hasn’t happened yet either, which means she can’t legally work.

Backlog of U visa applications

Every year, the U.S. government issues no more than 10,000 U visas, and that’s created a backlog. Some applicants are waiting five to seven years for the government to process their applications. That’s a long time for individuals who need to work.

“Most of the folks we serve are people who have fled domestic violence or have experienced some form of sexual violence,” said Kali Cohn, advocacy director for the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, or HRI. “Being able to leave that situation and provide for yourself in another context is critical to being safe. But without work authorization, it’s a lot harder to do that.”

And without work authorization, immigrants who’ve applied for a U visa can’t apply for a driver’s license in Texas. Cohn said her clients feel like they’re in a state of perpetual limbo.

Beatriz & family 1.jpeg
Courtesy of Beatriz Torres
Beatriz Torres and José Jesús Ramirez with their family today. In 2015, their car was struck by another vehicle, killing their 16-month-old son Neithan.

Permission to work

In June, the Biden administration announced it would speed up the process for U visa applicants to receive work authorization. The federal government says it will now review applications more quickly to determine if they’re made in good faith. If that’s confirmed, applicants will receive a work permit and be protected from deportation for four years, while they wait for their U visa application to be processed.

Torres said she welcomed the change, but she’s still worried as she waits for an update on her case.

Her voice cracked and she teared up when she spoke about the car accident and its impact on her family. The couple has two young sons, a 5-year-old and one who turns 3 this month. They also have two older sons, who are 15 and 23.

Es dificil. It’s difficult,” she said. “We want a better place to live. We didn’t get to raise the son we lost, but we want to give our other children a better life.”

After the accident, Torres’ husband, Jesús, had to have emergency brain surgery. She said he wasn’t able to work for months and didn’t sleep well either, often only managing to doze off for an hour or two.

“He’s much better now, but we still feel pain,” she said. “The loss of our son still hurts.”

Controlling relationship

Blanca, a single mother of two, has also lived in North Texas for two decades. KERA is only identifying her by her first name because she is a victim of a crime. She was newly married when she came to the U.S. but was unhappy.

“It was a very difficult relationship. He was very controlling,” she said of her now ex-husband. “He wouldn’t let me drive or go out.”

Blanca had two children and suffered from postpartum depression after both pregnancies, she said. Twice she stayed at a women’s shelter, but was afraid to ask anyone for help.

Someone at one of the shelters, did help by connecting her with Human Rights Initiative. And in 2016, she applied for a U visa.

“Some days are really difficult, because without a work permit, you can’t get a driver’s license,” Blanca said over the summer. “But my children are the motor that keep me going.”

In late July, Blanca learned she had been placed on a waitlist for a U visa, which means she can apply for work authorization.

Physical abuse survivor

Jeny, a 29-year-old North Texas woman, applied for a U visa in March 2013 while she was pregnant with her second child. KERA is only identifying her by her first name because she, too, is a victim of a crime.

Jeny was physically abused by her father when she was younger. He was eventually convicted of aggravated battery to a child.

HRI helped her apply for DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, while she waited on her U visa application. And in August 2013, her DACA application was approved.

DACA provided temporary relief – she could work and not worry about being deported as long as her DACA status was current. But she said waiting for a U visa was stressful.

“Finding work and being able to survive was hard while waiting,” she said.

DACA recipients have to renew their status every two years in order to continue working. She was scared something would go wrong.

“It was those fears of losing my job, my financial stability … hoping my [DACA] work permit wouldn’t expire,” she said. “It was really hard because I didn’t want to get in trouble with anyone. I was scared of being arrested for whatever reason.”

Four years later, Jeny finally got her U visa. And this past September, she received a green card.

Jeny & family 1.jpg
Courtesy of Jeny
Jeny, who KERA is only identifying by her first name, was physically abused by her father. In 2013, she applied for a U visa, which she received four years later. Today, the wait time for a U visa is often much longer.

Lengthy wait times

Kali Cohn said there are still problems the federal government needs to solve to speed up the process for U visa applicants. As of the end of last year, there were more than 161,000 pending applications.

And even with the recent policy change, Cohn said the current estimated processing time for work authorization is between three and 11 months.

“It’s really important for Congress to be allocating funding for people who are looking at these applications … so decision makers can make decisions on these visas and this policy change has a meaningful impact,” Cohn said. “If there aren’t enough people looking at the applications, the backlog is just going to stay.”

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Got a tip? Email Stella M. Chávez at schavez@kera.org. You can follow Stella on Twitter @stellamchavez.