(Editor’s note: Attorney Joanna Golding is an Associate of Trupti Patel ESQ, founder of the law offices of Trupti N. Patel & Associates, an immigration law firm based in Boston, Burlington, as well as in San Jose, CA. Saheli volunteer Haider Ghiasuddin spoke with Ms. Golding about the current state of immigration laws and its relationship to domestic violence and abuse services, particularly for the local South Asian communities that Saheli serves. Haider is a volunteer writer for Saheli, a community-based organization in Massachusetts founded with the mission to empower South Asian women and their families to live safe and healthy lives.)
Mr. Ghiasuddin’s questions center on what is happening on a national level impacting Saheli’s clients who are survivors of domestic violence and abuse. There is some useful information Ms. Golding’s website (https://www.tnpassociates.com/) regarding the U-visa, which has enabled domestic violence survivors to report abuse while assuring them the benefits of a visa that is independent of their abuser. Unfortunately, as reported in The New York Times in May (Kanno-Youngs 2019), the backlog for U-visa submissions has increased to such an extent that applicants today are expecting to wait perhaps four years before receiving any protections.
Question: For how long has this crisis in U-visas been apparent in your work with South Asian immigrant clients in Massachusetts? How have you adapted and responded to this crisis in your work as an immigration attorney?
Attorney Joanna Golding: We have been experiencing increased backlogs for most cases, with the U-visa being one of the worst. It is difficult to predict exactly how long U visas will be pending because by law USCIS is limited in number of how many cases can be approved each fiscal year. Therefore, as the number of cases each year exceeds the number of visas available, the backlog continues to grow. At this time, USCIS is making preliminary determinations on cases filed in May of 2015, so applicants will wait well over 4 years even for a preliminary determination on their filing. Despite this long wait fortunately, the U-visa is a very helpful visa to those who qualify and despite the backlog we continue to file and work with clients on these cases. For some of our clients who are already in removal (or deportation) proceedings, we have been able to successfully stop the removal due to strong U-visa filings. For nearly all of our clients the stress and anxiety of the current administration have been very difficult, but we continue to pursue all options and support these clients during these times.
Question: Increasing fears of deportation have created a climate where survivors of such violence question whether to contact police. Fifty-two percent of community advocates who contributed to a 2019 survey report having worked with immigrant survivors who “dropped civil or criminal cases because they were fearful to continue with their cases” (May 2019 Advocate Survey). How do you go about providing your clients confidence to even come to court with their justified fears over the increasing rate of deportation?
Attorney Joanna Golding: Our clients still have rights and options despite what is often presented by this administration, so we are encouraging clients to continue in the fight to exercise their rights. It is extremely important for clients to attend immigration court proceedings and any other court proceedings (such as family or criminal hearings). We prepare clients and attend hearings with them as needed to help them feel comfortable to be in court. There was a recent decision that just came down last week that ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) cannot arrest immigrants in courthouses in Massachusetts. This is a preliminary decision, but it is a good example of how advocates are successfully fighting for the rights of immigrants.
Question: Equally tragic is the continued delay in the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which the Senate seems indifferent to passing anytime soon (Daly 2019). How are immigration attorneys preparing to best help their clients in the event that federal protections such as VAWA remain in limbo?
Attorney Joanna Golding: Clients still have the right to file VAWA applications as this is a law that has not changed. This is an important protection and I do not think our lawmakers will repeal this law. Unfortunately, with the delays in passing reauthorization the funding for many services or non-profits that rely on funding related to VAWA is on hold. In addition, as applications with USCIS increase and staff are not hired to keep up with these applications, a backlog in VAWA cases increases. These all have negative ongoing effects on our communities, but again, we continue to work to help clients and agencies such as Saheli to fight for rights of immigrants.
Thank you, Attorney Golding. It is clear that the current state of immigration law is very complex and changing rapidly. Now more than ever we are seeking help from immigration attorneys who can counsel abused women while understanding South Asian culture. Saheli was founded with the knowledge that culture and linguistic understanding is of the utmost importance to providing the appropriate services to immigrant women and children facing these issues. Trupti Patel has been exceptional to us in particular; she has helped one of Saheli’s clients navigate the complex U-visa process, filing for the client and her child at no cost.
In closing I would urge anyone who can support Saheli’s efforts to provide free services that range from legal or financial aid, employment skills development, counseling, or computer and financial literacy classes to clients, to contact us. Everyone should consider attending Saheli’s upcoming gala, Nirbhaya, which is aimed at raising funds for Saheli. The Gala Fundraiser, Nirbhaya will be held on Sunday, December 8th at the Burlington, Marriott Hotel from 3-7 pm. Please see saheli-nirbhaya.eventbrite.com for early bird tickets which end on November 1.
Haider is a first-year student in medicine and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org