By Christopher Arcitio
This past year, AABANY and Legal Services NYC (LSNYC) launched a pilot pro bono project connecting AABANY member-volunteers with undocumented immigrants who are survivors of domestic violence. Through this unique initiative, AABANY attorneys work with LSNYC clients to prepare U Nonimmigrant Status Visa (U-Visa) applications, which enable victims of crimes such as domestic violence to be eligible for immigration status. Since its launch, the pro bono initiative has been met with continued success.
The U Nonimmigrant Status Visa (U-Visa)
Created in 2007 by the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act, U-Visas protect victims who report crimes and cooperate with law enforcement, even amidst an understandable mistrust of the legal system and fear of possible immigration-related retaliation. On average, the United States approves 10,000 U-Visa applications per year.
To be eligible for a U-Visa, an applicant must meet five requirements. The applicant must: (1) be a victim of a qualifying crime, such as domestic violence; (2) suffer substantial physical or mental abuse as a result of such crime; (3) possess information concerning the crime; (4) be helpful, or be likely to be helpful in the investigation or prosecution of the crime; and (5) the crime must take place within the boundaries of the United States or violate the laws of the United States. A U-Visa will ultimately grant the applicant legal status to reside and work in the United States. In addition, the U-Visa allows the victim to petition on behalf of his or her children who are under 21 years of age. Although a U-Visa expires in four years, an applicant becomes eligible to apply for adjustment of status in the form of a green card within three years.
AABANY’s U-Visa Pro Bono Initiative
AABANY’s pro bono program was geared towards serving marginalized, low-income Asian American women and families with limited English proficiency who have suffered domestic violence. The leadership of the AABANY Government Service and Public Interest (GSPI) Committee and the Pro Bono and Community Service (PBSC) Committee developed and coordinated the program with the help of staff from LSNYC’s Queens Legal Services (QLS), which is based in Jamaica and operates the Asian Domestic Violence Law Collaborative, a consortium of shelter and counseling organizations serving hard-to-reach Asian immigrant domestic violence survivors. QLS attorneys mentor and support AABANY’s pro bono legal teams.
Thanks to the pro bono initiative, low-income Asian American immigrant families affected by domestic violence have an additional beacon of hope in their search for immigration relief.
AABANY’s unique pro bono initiative was officially launched in June 2014 with a Continuing Legal Eduction (CLE) training. Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP kindly hosted the CLE. Family law and immigration law attorneys from LSNYC, including PBCS Co-Chair and QLS staff attorney June Lee, trained AABANY volunteers on the intricacies of interviewing survivors of domestic violence, preparing survivors’ narratives for affidavits, and other aspects necessary for a successful application for a U-Visa. LSNYC attorneys also serve as mentors to the AABANY volunteers and offer support through the entire process. Prospective U-Visa applicants are pre-screened and subsequently matched with the trained pro bono attorneys and law students. The objective is for each team to complete the U-visa application for their client.
Ten survivors of domestic violence so far have received legal representation through the program. Two dozen AABANY members have provided valuable pro bono representation.
U-Visa Pro Bono Program Success Story
Positive results are already emerging. In one case, GSPI Co-Chair Karen Yau, a solo practitioner and mediator, and Dexin Deng, a rising 3L law student at Brooklyn Law School, represented a Chinese client, who had escaped from her husband after being physically abused and psychologically terrorized. After an incident in which the client called the police, the client cooperated with the District Attorney’s office in the investigation and prosecution of her husband abuser. The client was then referred to the New York Asian Women’s Center, a safe haven for women and children that provides counseling, temporary housing, and a legal referral for a client’s immigration case.
The client’s case was referred to AABANY’s pro bono U-Visa project, where Karen and Dexin completed the client’s U-visa application. The efforts of Karen and Dexin allowed QLS to file a subsequent Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) Self-Petition for the client as well. Karen and Dexin spent hours and hours conducting interviews and drafting the application. This hard work and collaboration was rewarded with great success; the client’s VAWA Self-Petition was approved. The client’s green card application is currently pending.
Looking back at the case, Karen expresses a feeling of genuine satisfaction in the work that was done for the client. “For 45 hours of my time, an entire family now has a chance for a new life,” she said. The pro bono representation of these survivors of domestic violence “can have a major human impact [that] is not only great but can be unexpected.”
For Dexin, the project encouraged her to remain active in pro bono work. As an immigrant herself, she connected with the client. She notes, “It was amazing to see how different entities worked together to establish and support this pro bono project to serve the low-income Asian American immigrant families.”
Impact of U-Visa Pro Bono Program on AABANY
The U-Visa pro bono program has inspired additional pro bono efforts from AABANY.
For example, the GSPI and PBCS Committees are coordinating to develop day-long quarterly clinics and a one-time large event to help seniors and disabled individuals freeze their rents by applying for the Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption (SCRIE) and Disability Rent Increase Exemption (DRIE) programs. AABANY is working with Manhattan Legal Services to implement this event. Council Member Margaret Chin is supporting the effort.
In addition, the GSPI and PBCS Committees are looking for community partners and exploring the idea of providing representation to eligible Chinese to apply for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA).
Lastly, AABANY is exploring the idea of establishing a monthly Pro Bono Clinic that would provide one-shot legal advice and/or referrals to low-income individuals in the Asian American community. This inaugural effort would be modeled after similar programs at sister bar associations.
Those interested in becoming involved with this pilot pro bono project should contact Karen Kithan Yau, Government Service and Public Interest Committee Co-Chair (firstname.lastname@example.org) or June Lee, Pro Bono and Community Committee Service Co-Chair (email@example.com).
AABANY applauds the efforts of Karen Yau, June Lee, and Dexin Deng for their time and dedication to the APA community!
Special thanks to June, Karen and Dexin for their invaluable assistance and cooperation in researching and drafting this article.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2015, Volume XVI, Issue III of The AABANY Advocate, which can be read in its entirety here. To see all past versions of The AABANY Advocate, click here. To learn more about AABANY’s newsletter, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chris Arcitio was AABANY’s Summer 2015 Intern. He is currently a student at St. John’s School of Law.