Much immigration practice is centered on only a handful of the nonimmigrant visa categories in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). Every day we encounter those familiar letters—H (for the H-1B professional visa type), L (for intracompany transferees), O (for O-1 artists and their O-2 essential support personnel), not to mention B (the ubiquitous B-1/B-2 for tourists and temporary business visitors). But the same section 101(a)(15) of the INA offers a true alphabet soup, and I decided to take a gander at some of the lesser-known visa types.
The C visa is for foreign nationals who are traveling in “immediate and continuous transit through the United States” en route to another country. This visa is designed to facilitate travel through the United States, but is not a substitute for a visitor visa. On the other hand, foreign nationals with B1/B2 visas, or with ESTA (Visa Waiver Program) authorization, may not need a separate C visa if they are transiting through the United States. For those who do not, however, the C visa can be very helpful.
In addition to providing for transit directly through the United States, the C visa may also be used in the event of a flight delay or exceptionally long layover, allowing the individual to leave the airport and take in some of the local sights for a brief period. But beware, foreign nationals entering on C visas have several restrictions. For instance, entries on C visas are not permitted to exceed twenty-nine days. Further, foreign nationals who enter the United States on a C visa are not permitted to later change to another nonimmigrant status. The visa is also used to permit certain persons to pass in transit to and from the United Nations Headquarters District in New York City. Those individuals are limited to travel within the New York City area.
The D visa is known as a crewmember visa. A crewmember refers to a foreign national who is serving on board a vessel or aircraft who is landing in the United States temporarily and solely to pursue work as a crewmember. The D-1 visa requires that the individuals depart the United States on the same “vessel” that they entered on. This visa status sometimes gets confused with the aforementioned C visa because there is a somewhat more common visa called C-1/D, which combines both categories and allows foreign nationals to enter the United States in transit so that they can join a vessel on which they will depart the United States for work as a crewman.
There is also a D-2 visa which is reserved for crewmembers serving on a fishing vessel whose home port or base or operations is in the United States but who will land temporarily in Guam and then depart from Guam on the same vessel they arrived there on. Like the C visa, foreign nationals on a D visa are not permitted to change to another nonimmigrant status from within the United States. In addition, individuals admitted to the United States as crewmembers are ineligible to adjust to permanent residence (Green Card), with limited exceptions.
Commonly referred to as the “Snitch” Visa, the S visa is one of the more uncommon visa types provided for under the law. The S visa is reserved for foreign nationals (and their spouse and children) that help law enforcement agencies in the investigation and prosecution of criminal or terrorist activity. This is a special visa that requires the law enforcement agency itself to petition for foreign nationals, based on a showing that these foreign nationals possess and are willing to provide “critical, reliable” information about a criminal or terrorist organization or enterprise. In the case of the criminal organization or enterprise, foreign nationals must be “essential” to the investigation or prosecution of an individual in the organization or enterprise. In the case of the terrorist organization or enterprise, foreign nationals must be in or have been placed in danger for having provided the information, and must be eligible for an award from the State Department for providing that information.
Since people most likely to have the kind of “critical reliable” information may well have their own criminal or terrorist history, this visa status is also unique in that it waives most grounds of inadmissibility (including criminal and terrorist grounds). In those situations where foreign nationals on the S visa have “substantially contributed” to the law enforcement agency’s investigation or prosecution, they may be eligible to adjust status to permanent resident (Green Card). On the other hand, foreign nationals are generally not permitted to change to another nonimmigrant status (such B-2 or H-1B) from S status. There are only 200 visas allotted each fiscal year for the S visa for individuals that help law enforcement agencies in criminal investigations, and fifty for terrorist investigations. Is it any wonder you’ve never heard of any one with this status?
The T Visa is a special status provided for foreign nationals that have been victims of human trafficking. Human trafficking refers to the movement of people across borders, usually for the purposes of forced labor or sexual exploitation. For foreign nationals who have been trafficked into the United States, the T status allows them (and their spouse and children) to remain in the US with work authorization and, after three years, apply for permanent residence (Green Card).
In order to qualify, foreign nationals must show that they are/were a victim of a severe form of human trafficking (sex or labor trafficking), be physically present in the US (or American Samoa, or the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, or at a port of entry) on account of trafficking, comply with (or express a willingness to comply with) any reasonable request from a law enforcement agency for assistance in the investigation or prosecution of human trafficking, and show that if they were removed (deported) from the US, they would suffer extreme hardship involving severe and unusual harm.
Applicants for T status must file a special application (Form I-914) and include a statement regarding the events surrounding their being a victim of the severe form of human trafficking. They are also “strongly encouraged” to file a Form I-914B, Declaration of Law Enforcement Officer for Victim of Trafficking in Persons. This is a special form to be completed by a law enforcement agency confirming that the foreign national complied with the reasonable request for assistance in the investigation or prosecution of human trafficking. The T visa status is limited too—there are only 5000 such visas allotted each year.
The U visa status is another lesser-known visa category, designed for victims of specific kinds of criminal activity. In order to qualify, foreign nationals must show that they have suffered “substantial physical or mental abuse as a result” of being victims of specific crimes, that they possess information about the criminal activity of which they have been victim, and that they have been helpful or are “likely” to be helpful to law enforcement or a prosecutor, judge, or other authorities in investigating or prosecuting the criminal activity. The specific kinds of crimes covered by the U visa category are: rape, torture, trafficking, incest, domestic violence, sexual assault, prostitution, sexual exploitation, female genital mutilation, being held hostage, peonage, involuntary servitude, slave trade, kidnapping, abduction, unlawful criminal restraint, false imprisonment, blackmail, extortion, manslaughter, murder, felonious assault, witness tampering, obstruction of justice, perjury; or the attempt, conspiracy or solicitation to commit any of these crimes.
In order to file for the U status, foreign nationals must submit a Form I-918B completed by a law enforcement agency, certifying that they have been “helpful” in the investigation or prosecution of the criminal activity. Like the T status, foreign nationals in U status may be eligible to apply for permanent residence (Green Card) after three years. Moreover, many grounds of inadmissibility that apply to most Green Card applications (such as criminal grounds) do not apply to U status applications. At the end of December 2014, USCIS announced that, for the sixth straight year, it had issued the maximum number of U visas allowed under law—10,000.
This is an extra-rare visa type that is rarely issued any longer, as it was a product of a particular moment in immigration law history. As a way to keep families together in light of the visa backlog (which is when the visa was not available under the monthly visa bulletin issued by the Department of State), Congress created the V visa to permit spouses and minor children of lawful permanent residents to enter the United States or remain in the United States (by changing to V status from another status, such as B visa) while their cases were pending.
In order to qualify for the visa, an applicant had to show that the visa petition filed on their behalf had been filed prior to December 21, 2000 and was either pending for more than three years, or, if approved, that the Green Card process could not be completed due to the backlog or because it was otherwise pending. At the time of its creation, the V visa was a stopgap measure to reduce how long families were separated; however, since the visa bulletin now shows visas available in the F2A category (the visa category that refers to spouses and minor children of lawful permanent residents) for petitions with priority dates well after that December 2000 cut-off date, these visas are no longer being issued. Nonetheless, the law is still on the books, and is an important reminder that—when it wants to—Congress can act to provide practical relief for America’s immigrant families.
Lesser Known But Still Important
While these lesser known visa types are so rare that it is unlikely any of you will have the occasion to need them, we hope this short survey gives an idea of the important role that they play in immigration law—facilitating international travel, keeping United States’ ports a hub of shipping and other activity, helping law enforcement do its job, keeping immigrant families together (once upon a time), as well as providing important relief to victims of severe abuse and criminal activity.