The visa's inclusiveness doesn't stop at deportees: Victims can get legal status for their spouses and children, even those living in another country. Victims under 21 can sponsor their parents and unmarried siblings under 18. In cases of murder or manslaughter, spouses and children can apply as "indirect victims," even if they didn't witness the crime.

Since 2009, USCIS has issued 18,654 and rejected 5,639 U visas — a 77 percent approval rate. Congress capped the number available annually at 10,000, though that does not include the 14,122 family members of victims who have also received the visas.

All in all, U visas represent a blip in the vast visa system, which churns out more than a million green cards a year. But among immigrants, word about the U visa is traveling fast.

Christopher Martinez, a immigration services program director at Catholic Charities, says that the nonprofit recently had to start a U visa wait list. It has handled 800 cases.
Jean-Philippe Dobrin
Christopher Martinez, a immigration services program director at Catholic Charities, says that the nonprofit recently had to start a U visa wait list. It has handled 800 cases.

Adolfo Lopez heard about the U visa from a friend he met on 24th Street in the Mission, who passed him the number for his caseworker at the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant. Lopez, an affable 23-year old Guatemalan, called the Berkeley-based immigrant advocacy organization that same day. Lopez says he's had a bad time since crossing into the United States six years ago. A group of teens stole his cellphone in Glen Park. While loading recyclables into his pickup truck last year — his under-the-table job since construction work got slow — a man robbed him at knifepoint. In 2006, he filed a police report after several men shot at him in the Bayview while he was sitting in his truck before beating and robbing him. In a couple of months, Lopez should learn whether he gets a U visa because of the shooting. "Good thing they didn't kill me, or I wouldn't be here to talk about it," he says on a recent morning, sitting in his truck on Newhall Street, across from the site of the crime.

Further south on Third Street, there's a yellow house with a new owner: Rosa Aguilar. In 2003, her husband, Jesus Martinez, walked into the 500 Club, the iconic Mission bar with a twinkling martini glass sign beckoning outside. According to court filings, the bartender put Martinez into a choke hold on the sidewalk until he suffocated. (The bartender later committed suicide; Martinez's mother and Aguilar won a $1 million settlement from the bar in 2006.)

About two years after the incident, a relative told Aguilar how Catholic Charities had helped him get a marriage visa. Aguilar met with caseworkers at the nonprofit, which does low-cost legal work for immigrants of all faiths, who helped her put together her application. A few years later, she received her U status. Life has changed: Aguilar was able to take out a loan to buy her house. She now earns $15 an hour as a hotel housekeeper, and tells her co-workers about the requirements for the visa every chance she gets. "I feel free. I feel safe. I feel life totally changed," she says.

Since the U visa program began, a cottage industry of Bay Area nonprofits has sprung up to process applications, charging up to $1,000 a person. Catholic Charities is one of the largest. The visas have become 50 percent of its caseload, with 800 cases to date. Each Monday, caseworkers give legal advice to a clinic of about 20 immigrants, half of whom come to find out whether they're eligible.

In one recent clinic, Francisco Gonzalez talked to the group in his rapid, Cuban-imbued Spanish. "The U visa is an excellent immigration benefit ... The U visa will forgive someone who has a previous deportation order, who has left and entered the country illegally — obstacles that in any other type of immigration case cannot be overcome." (People convicted of more violent crimes will be approved only in extraordinary circumstances.)

Despite this apparent good news, the meeting's tone was somber. Gonzalez was firm and unsentimental; he reiterated that "I'm not promising anything." He looked over the restraining orders several women pushed across the table toward him and told them they'd need to return with police reports. He identified three viable cases: a Salvadoran mechanic who'd been beaten by youngsters in the Mission; a Mexican produce deliveryman who'd been stabbed 10 years ago on Bayshore; and a teenage girl who had come with her mother, sister, and Child Protective Services caseworker.

Gonzalez told them of another problem: With 400 pending U visa cases at Catholic Charities and only three employees processing them, they'd be the first on a wait list.

The delay didn't seem to bother the deliveryman. His solemn face broke into a smile as he contemplated becoming a legal resident after 17 years: "It means everything to me." The mechanic showed a reporter how his nose is askew after it was broken in the assault, and wiggled his false front teeth to show that his real ones got knocked out. Add that evidence to the police report in his hand, and it would be hard to doubt he's telling the truth.

Yet as more U visa applicants testify in court, defense attorneys are trying to persuade juries that they cannot be trusted.

Richard McCain says he and his Mexican boyfriend, Manuel Valencia, were planning "one last weekend of fun" before getting sober. Instead, it ended in a meth-infused three-way gone wrong, McCain in jail, and Valencia on the path to getting a U visa.

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