The Department of Homeland Security will speed up work permits for tens of thousands of illegal immigrants who claim they are victims of crime, the department announced Monday, saying the current wait, which can last up to five years, is too long to make people remain in economic limbo.
More than 160,000 people were waiting for the victim visa, officially known as the U visa, as of December.
Under the new rules, U visa applicants can be awarded work permits and deferred action, which is an official amnesty for deportation, once they have filed their petition, had their fingerprints taken and are deemed to have made a good-faith claim. The process is known as a Bona Fide Determination. Until now, they had to wait until their cases were further along in the process.
Under the law, 10,000 U visas can be issued each year, but far more people apply for them. They are particularly attractive to illegal immigrants because they can be used to create a path to citizenship.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the country owes it to the illegal immigrants.
“These are individuals who have come forward to help law enforcement keep us all safe, but who are in need of a measure of protection for themselves as well,” he said.
Under the policy, family members of the victim are also eligible for work permits.
The permits are good for four years.
The move is the latest by the Biden administration to grant work permission to illegal immigrants. Other steps included speeding up the ability of asylum-seekers to apply and expanding Temporary Protected Status to include more people. TPS includes work permission.
The U visa is handled by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Homeland Security agency that processes legal immigration.
U visas have long been controversial, with critics saying there’s a significant amount of fraud.
Federal prosecutors in Minnesota last year charged a woman with orchestrating a scheme to have immigrants report false crimes and corroborate each other’s stories in order to obtain U visas.
And in Indiana, a lawyer pleaded guilty in 2017 to visa fraud after authorities said he filed more than 200 bogus U visa cases, fabricating claims that the migrants had provided help to the U.S. attorney’s office. The lawyer charged the migrants about $3,000 each.
“There are very few pathways for an illegal alien to get in line for a green card and [the U visa] is one of them, and it’s basically completely subjective. It incentivizes fraudulent claims,” said Rosemary Jenks, vice president at NumbersUSA, which advocates for stricter immigration controls.
Rob Law, chief of the Office of Policy at USCIS in the Trump administration, said he expects the changes to create a run on U visas.
“Once word gets out, every illegal alien in the country will file a U petition, which is free, to get a free work permit,” he said.
In 2020, about 21% of applications that were decided were denied.
USCIS said it tries to review cases while they’re pending to make sure the applicants and their family members still deserve the work permit, and the agency said it retains the right to update background checks based on new information.