Cap reached for immigrant victims of domestic and sexual violence

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Immigrants who have experienced domestic violence or sexual assault may have a tougher time than before applying for visas that allow them to stay legally in the United States.

The category known as a U-visa, first issued four years ago, is available to any immigrant who reports to law enforcement that they’ve been a crime victim or witness. The US issues up to 10,000 U-visas a year. But this year, the cap was reached earlier than ever.

“Because there’s a lot of advocacy groups who can advise people who are in the U.S. illegally of the different ways that they can become legal residents, exaggeration, overstating the case is very definitely possible," says Joe Guzzardi, a fellow with Californians for Population Stabilization who believes the visas can encourage immigration fraud. "It’s all largely anecdotal anyway. And that’s one of my concerns on this particular visa.”

At the same time, Congress is debating whether to reauthorize a measure that also has helped immigrants: the Violence Against Women Act. Republican lawmakers say the law encourages fraud, and they’re proposing to do away with existing protections for immigrants who are victims of domestic violence.

“The government does have a right to investigate any type of fraud. But we have to be very careful because there are women who are truly victims of domestic violence and do need this protection," says Patricia Corrales, a former deputy district attorney in Denver who's now an immigration attorney in Los Angeles. "And they need the opportunity to stay in this country, legally.”

Immigration activists say the suspension of U-visas or the repeal of the Violence Against Women Act could discourage some immigrant women from speaking up against crime, and would place them in further jeopardy.

But as November’s elections approach, it’s unlikely either measure will be expanded before the end of the year.