05/15/2013 12:11 pm ET Updated Jul 15, 2013

What U Need to Know About U-Visas

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A female immigrant farmworker in California's Central Valley picks grapes all day, every day. The hours are long and it's hot, but that's not a problem for her. She's worked hard all her life to get to this land of liberty and justice. Her boss is friendly... too friendly. That IS a problem. He rapes her repeatedly in the farmland called "field de calzon" -- the field of panties -- a destination spot for rapists to abuse the vulnerable. Her boss warns that if she says anything, she will be deported.

This could be the story of up to 80 percent of female immigrant farm-workers who labor in California's heartland. According to a 2010 Human Rights Watch survey, nearly 4/5 of these women are sexually abused or harassed. There are other versions of what a New York Times editorial calls an epidemic of gender violence: a poor young woman is courted by a 'lover-boy' who whisks her from Mexico, Thailand, or other impoverished country to the end of the rainbow, California. Beautiful lover-boy turns into a beast of a human trafficker... and the young woman ends up turning tricks as a sex slave or laboring without pay in a nail salon or sweathouse.

The melting pot of golden opportunity has become the end of a perverse rainbow for human traffickers. With international airports, borders, and open ports, California is a top destination for global abusers. A World Bank study suggested that more women aged 15-44 are endangered by rape and domestic violence than by cancer, war, malaria, and car accidents combined. California Attorney General Kamala Harris recently completed a comprehensive study on human trafficking, a low-risk, high reward $32 billion international industry which has tripled over the past 3 years. Immigrant victims are forced to choose between a life of abuse/semi-enslavement or deportation or even imprisonment because battering bosses often have powerful pals.

Attorney General Harris is fighting this tidal wave of abuse, as is the United States government. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) enacted by Congress in 1994 and reauthorized easily in 2000 and 2006, added protections for immigrant victims of domestic and sexual abuse {including trafficking, torture, and rape}. VAWA allocated 10,000 U-visas annually for domestically and sexually abused immigrants who cooperated with authorities and provided information helpful to the arrest of criminal abusers. U-visa holders would be able to stay and work in the U.S. for up to 4 years.

Great idea, but as with many new ideas, there are kinks in the system. Like how inappropriately hard it can be for abused individuals to even apply for a U-visa -- the regulations are ambiguous and inconsistently enforced. Some law enforcement officials can reject all the U-visa applications put before them. Certification can sometimes take years, and then be arbitrarily denied -- as elusive as the unprosecuted abusers. The vaguely-worded U-visa moral character provision can be massaged depending on the law enforcer's feelings about immigrants.

The latest round of VAWA reauthorization in 2012 was supposed to fix these kinks, heralding in a more just era and protecting abused individuals from criminals on the loose. The U-visas, which have become so sought after that the demand increasingly exceeds the 10,000 cap, were to be expanded annually by 5000. Resources were to be provided to clarify the U-visa certification process - who could argue with clarity, right? Wrong. These days, members on both sides of Congress seem to think their job entails picking playground fights.

And so, the U-visa provision did not live happily ever after, but instead was twisted by opponents into a fraudulent bogeyman. Some members of Congress were so busy spinning fear-mongering scenarios about potential U-visa fraud that they neglected those things called facts. U-visa provisions are if anything, too strictly enforced by law enforcement, who have to sign off for any U-visa to be certified.

In order to pass the VAWA reauthorization, Democratic Senate leaders deleted the proposed expansion of U-visas, promising to fold it into upcoming immigration reform. VAWA re-authorization was signed into law on March 7, 2013, without the U-visa provision, but with an increase in important resources for LGBT and Native American domestic abuse victims.

However, human traffickers are also providing their own increase -- in enslaved human "resources," dumping them into the hot hands of fellow abusers. The criminals' consequence-free field day threatens our safety. We cannot tolerate field of panties crime scenes or lover-boy law-breakers battering hard-working, impoverished minorities into muted, enslaved submission. We need to hold the Senate to its courageous promise. More U-visas for the criminally abused will mean more liberty, equality, and freedom from injustice for all.