This piece is published as part of our new Immigration Idea Incubator which features policy ideas our team has been thinking about in addition to our formal immigration strategy work. We welcome your thoughts and engagement!
Congress established the U visa in 2000 to encourage victims and witnesses of crimes like domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking to report those crimes without fear of retaliation–including deportation. Law enforcement views the U visa as a critical tool in investigating and prosecuting criminals and that protective measures are in place to mitigate the risk of ineligible persons taking advantage of the system. Though there have indeed been instances of fraudulent law enforcement signatures and falsified police reports, they can be easily prevented.
Congress could strengthen the program’s integrity and help reduce the chances of fraudulent applications through one straightforward change to the U visa application process: mandating that law enforcement officials submit their certifications directly to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). This would eliminate fraud risks of forged signatures, unauthorized signatures, and tampering with petitions.
To file a U visa application, applicants must have an authorized agency or law enforcement official certify that an alleged crime happened and that the victim cooperated with law enforcement in the criminal investigation. Only certain government officials and agencies can provide the required law enforcement certification. These include judges, federal/state/local law enforcement, prosecutors, and other investigative authorities like Child Protective Services.
Once law enforcement provides certification via Form I-918 Supplement B, they return it to the applicant. The applicant then submits this as part of the complete Form I-918 petition to USCIS for further processing– often with the assistance of a lawyer. A 2020 USCIS report found that approximately 94 percent of U visa filers applied either with legal representation or with a preparer. In contrast, less than 3 percent of applicants filed by themselves. As part of the background process, USCIS then conducts a security screening of the applicants to ensure they are not domestic or international threats.
There have been several instances of fraud stemming from the current process. In 2017, an Indiana immigration attorney obtained a certification from a law enforcement agency and used it — illegally — in 200 U-visa applications. One often-cited fraud example involves a 2016 case where the Department of Justice indicted 11 individuals in several states in a large-scale fraud scheme involving attorneys and law enforcement who allegedly falsified police reports and documents to assist several individuals in petitioning for a U visa.
A 2022 program audit also identified cases where unauthorized law enforcement officers signed the certification. Of 83 samples selected, three were found to have been altered after they were signed by law enforcement and before they were submitted to USCIS.
Cutting out the middle step by requiring law enforcement to send the certification form directly to USCIS via an online portal is a relatively simple way to limit further misuse. The U visa applicant should also have viewer access to this portal to ensure transparency and open communication between law enforcement officers and applicants.
A simple step taken by Congress could significantly strengthen the integrity of the U Visa program and ensure it continues to operate as intended: to help law enforcement do their jobs to protect victims of violence and keep our communities safe.