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Undocumented survivors of UNLV shooting might be eligible for special visa

The UNLV Immigration Clinic is helping victims start a multiyear process that provides a path to legal status if they help with a police investigation.
Jannelle Calderon
Jannelle Calderon
Higher EducationImmigration
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More than a dozen noncitizen students have consulted the UNLV Immigration Clinic since the Dec. 6 shooting on campus, where three professors were slain, some that are “very clearly qualified” for a U visa that is designed to protect victims of certain crimes.  

Aubrey Maples, the university legal services fellow with the UNLV Immigration Clinic — which provides free legal services to students and faculty — said the goal is to protect victims’ rights when they come forward to provide evidence and testimony to help police conduct their investigation. Those who are not citizens, such as undocumented students, staff and international students, could start the process of obtaining a U visa, Maples said. 

Despite there not being a guarantee, students and staff can take the first step, some need to get past a mistrust of law enforcement because of bad experiences in their home countries.

“One of the folks that I spoke with, they need to go to therapy so that they can get to the point where they can go to the police,” Maples said. “Their experience on campus triggered trauma that they experienced in their home country, so trauma on top of trauma. And now I'm telling them, ‘You should report this to the police.’”

Congress created the U visa more than 20 years ago for “victims of crimes who have suffered substantial mental or physical abuse,” providing a pathway to permanent residency.

“The U visa is very, very fact specific … We'll talk about what they experienced that day. What they saw, what they heard, what they witnessed, whether or not they filed a report with a police officer or with law enforcement,” Maples told The Nevada Independent in an interview, adding that the process could take years. “You can't just apply for a visa and they're up next week.” 

The hurdle, Maples said, is “proving trauma” as the witnesses may not have physical wounds because of the nature of the shooting and police acting so quickly. That can include having evaluations and going to therapy.

“There's part of me that is going on a very realistic level — ‘Hello, this was a mass shooting. There is trauma there,’” Maples said. “But for the government, you have to show it. So that body of evidence takes a while to get together.”

Law enforcement also has to do fact-finding and certify that the person is a victim and have provided "information that is helpful" to law enforcement or the government in investigating or prosecuting a crime, Maples said. She added that the criteria can include people who are an eyewitness and can provide testimony, and those who knew the suspect or have information about the suspect's motives or methods.

According to the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, 80 victims of the shooting at the Route 91 Harvest music festival on Oct. 1, 2017, who applied for U visas are all still awaiting “a final decision” and estimate it will take an additional two to three years. 

Only 10,000 U visas are issued each year, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website. When the cap is reached, those remaining who qualify for the U visa are put on a preapproval waiting list and granted a deferred action permit to work legally in the United States.

By the time the cap was reached in 2022, there were more than 189,000 pending U visa applications from crime victims. 

Nayelli Rico Lopez, the resource coordinator for UNLV’s Undocumented Student Program, is helping the immigration clinic reach noncitizen students by promoting and helping organize an information session about the “immigration options” for survivors of the Dec. 6 shooting.

In her position, Rico Lopez often connects undocumented students with resources — from applying to the university, to financial aid and scholarship opportunities, to basic needs and mental health support. It is estimated that more than 1,000 undocumented students attend UNLV, Rico Lopez said.

Despite the backlog, after successfully making it through the process and having a U visa for three years, people can apply for a green card, which provides permanent residency in the U.S. Many undocumented students have no other options under current law for obtaining legal status.

“Especially with the very limited options there are for adjustment of status, it's important for [students] to consider all of them. We already know that there's a backlog with certain adjustment of status processes,” Rico Lopez said. “I have [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] and that's a privilege that many of our students now that are entering higher [education] are coming in without DACA because of the freeze on application processing.”

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