The Honorable Patrick J. Leahy
437 Russell Senate Office Building
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510

The Honorable Charles E. Grassley
135 Hart Senate Office Building
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Honorable Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee:

In anticipation of the Committee’s consideration of the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act tomorrow, Human Rights Watch writes to express our strongest support for expanding and improving the protections afforded to immigrant victims of crime by the U-visa.

Human Rights Watch has conducted extensive research and analysis on a range of immigration issues in the United States, issuing 11 in-depth reports on the subject in the last three years alone.[i] In the process, we have interviewed immigrant victims of crime, their attorneys, law enforcement officers, and social service providers who have attested to the critical importance of the U-visa, both as a means for protecting the rights of immigrant victims and as a tool for holding perpetrators of crime accountable.

For many victims the U-visa is the single light at the end of a long tunnel of suffering. Diana O. was 17 when she came from Honduras to Mexico. In Mexico, she was held by the Zetas drug cartel before being trafficked into the US. Found abandoned in a trailer in Texas by Border Patrol, she had been raped repeatedly by people paying money to her traffickers and had been forced to carry drugs. Her attorney told Human Rights Watch that Diana was severely traumatized and called her every day from immigration detention. In February 2010, Diana O. was granted a U-visa.[ii]

The U-visa works because it sends the message to immigrant victims that their abusers cannot use US immigration law to trap them in a cycle of violence. The U-visa tells victims that they do not need to choose between deportation and a life of abuse. The visa provides an alternative to immediate deportation to victims who seek protection from the police and cooperate with the criminal justice system. However, if that alternative does not exist, either because the cap on the annual number of visas may have been reached or because the process for law enforcement certification is unclear, victims are again put in the position of worrying that they cannot seek safety without jeopardizing their residency in the US.

To be eligible for a U-visa, a victim must have a certification from law enforcement indicating his or her cooperation with the investigation or prosecution. This helps law enforcement acquire important information that they need to bring criminals to justice and ensure general public safety. It also acts as a barrier to false claims. However, real victims may face difficulties because police departments and prosecutors vary widely in their approach to providing certification, which is completely at their discretion. We support efforts to clarify the certification process. For example, allowing law enforcement officers with supervisory responsibilities to sign a certification and allowing the Department of Homeland Security to consider secondary evidence apart from the law enforcement certification of a victim’s helpfulness to an investigation.

The fact that the U-visa cap was met in fiscal years 2010 and 2011 (only two years after the visa was first made available) is a testament to the importance of the visa. It is also a notice that the cap needs to be raised if the U-visa is to continue providing a trusted avenue for immigrant victims of crime to seek redress. We urge the Committee to approve an increase in the annual cap and to give the utmost consideration to changes that would facilitate the certification process for the U-visa.


Liesl Gerntholtz
Executive Director, Women’s Rights Division
Human Rights Watch

Antonio Ginatta
Advocacy Director, US Program
Human Rights Watch


[i]Human Rights Human Rights Watch, No Way to Live: Alabama’s Immigrant Law,December 14, 2011,; Human Rights Watch, A Costly MoveFar and Frequent Transfers Impede Hearings for Immigrant Detainees in the United States, June 14, 2011,; Human Rights Watch, Detained and at Risk: Sexual Abuse and Harassment in United States Immigration Detention, August, 25, 2010,; Human Rights Watch, Deportation by Default: Mental Disability, Unfair Hearings, and Indefinite Detention in the US Immigration System, July 25, 2010,;  Human Rights Watch, “Tough, Fair, and Practical”: A Human Rights Framework for Immigration Reform in the United States, July 8, 2010,; Human Rights Watch, Costly and Unfair:Flaws in US Immigration Detention Policy, May 6, 2010,; Human Rights Watch, Jailing Refugees: Arbitrary Detention of Refugees in the US Who Fail to Adjust to Permanent Resident Status, December 29, 2009,; Human Rights Watch, Locked Up Far Away: The Transfer of Immigrants to Remote Detention Centers in the United States, December 2, 2009,; Human Rights Watch, et al., Returned to Risk: Deportation of HIV Positive Migrants, September 29, 2009,; Human Rights Watch, United States - Forced Apart (By the Numbers): Non-Citizens Deported Mostly for Nonviolent Offenses, April, 15, 2009,; Human Rights Watch, Detained and Dismissed: Women’s Struggles to Obtain Health Care in United States Immigration Detention, March 17, 2009,

[ii]Human Rights Watch interview with Texas legal service provider, April 14, 2010. Diana O. is a pseudonym.