(WOMENSENEWS)–Deputy Detective Kevin Bickford, a member of the Oregon Human Trafficking Task Force, works with crime victims who may be as fearful of him as they are their assailants.

"Trying to track down foreign-born trafficking victims is very difficult because they don’t call 911; they are often afraid to come and talk to the police," he said.

When Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act in 2000, lawmakers had such dilemmas in mind.

Recognizing that immigrant crime victims often fear deportation, which hinders police investigations, Congress created the U visa to provide legal residency for immigrant crime victims who cooperate with law enforcement.

A U visa recipient is entitled to four years of legal residency and, crucially, to work authorization. After three years, a recipient may qualify for permanent resident status–a green card, which is a path to U.S. citizenship.

Bickford says the U visa helps him track down human traffickers by giving him a way to show their victims, who might otherwise fear deportation, that he is on their side and can actually help them stay in the United States.

Visa Holdup

But the U visas have been slow to reach their intended recipients.

Congress approved creation of U visas in 2000, but none were issued for seven years by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or U.S.C.I.S.

The agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security, oversees the visa, asylum and citizenship processes. It issued the first U visa regulations in September 2007. No visas were actually issued until a year later.

As of January, when newly elected President Obama was moving into the White House, at least 13,000 U visa applications had been submitted. However, fewer than 100 visas had been awarded, far shy of the 10,000 annual cap approved by Congress.

Since Obama appointees have taken the reins at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency has been speeding up work on the backlog to fully implement the nine-year-old U visa process.

Chris Rhatigan, a spokesperson for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said in a recent interview that officials have already approved approximately 4,000 U visa applications.

Thousands more applications have been reviewed and sent back to petitioners with requests for more evidence. "If I gave you a number today," Rhatigan said, "it would already be outdated tomorrow. That’s how quickly things are moving."

"It’s very obvious that U.S.C.I.S. has been working really hard to reduce the backlog," said Natalie Nanansi, a fellow at the Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization in Falls Church, Va. The group works to protect immigrant women and girls from violence.

"We’ve seen the adjudication times speed up and we’ve seen cases that had lingered for more than a year all of a sudden be adjudicated."

Institutional Mindset Shifts

Gail Pendleton, co-director of ASISTA Immigration Assistance, a nonprofit network with headquarters in Des Moines, Iowa, that provides training and technical assistance on immigration law, calls the Obama-era change at the agency "a huge shift in the institutional mindset."

As co-founder of the National Network to End Violence Against Immigrant Women, Pendleton helped draft the U visa provisions in 2000.

She says the U visa complements earlier immigration provisions included in the pioneering Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA.

That 1994 act allowed battered immigrant spouses of U.S. citizens or permanent residents to self-petition for legal residency. Previously, the citizen or legal resident spouse controlled his or her partner’s immigration status, which sometimes allowed abusers to use threats of deportation to keep battered spouses from reporting violence to law enforcement or from attempting to escape.

However, many immigrant victims of partner violence are ineligible to self-petition under VAWA: those who married to a non-citizen or non-permanent resident and those who are not married at all, including victims of domestic violence within same-sex relationships.

For these individuals, the U visa can provide a path to safety without fear of deportation.

Visa Vital for Immigrant Victims

The U visa also extends protections to other immigrant crime victims, including those who have experienced incest, trafficking, kidnapping and female genital mutilation.

These special visas are emerging as a particularly important legal protection for immigrant victims of partner violence, who are mostly women.

In situations of domestic abuse, the threat of deportation can serve as another weapon in the abuser’s arsenal to compel the victim’s silence; the U visa undercuts that threat, turning the police into partners rather than adversaries.

Rosemary Willingham, an immigration attorney in San Diego, Calif., has worked on more than 30 U visa cases.

She recalls the case of one young immigrant woman who has four children. Her partner, a much older man, had been extremely physically abusive, at one point knocking out several of her teeth. As a result of this injury she received U visa interim status, a one-year temporary visa that was made available in the long limbo between passage of the U visa law and the issuance of its regulations.

After that she decided to go to school to become a dental hygienist.

"To have that young woman come back to me and tell me, ‘I have my own apartment, my own car, a job, my children are starting school’," Willingham pauses, letting the sentence go unfinished before she resumes. "None of that would have been possible for her without the U visa."

Nadia Berenstein is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY, and Washington, D.C. She frequently writes about equal rights and reproductive justice.