Diana was with her partner for only a year when the abuse started.

Her partner did such things as choke her, hit her head repeatedly against a wall, and twist her finger until she got a sprain.

The last straw for Diana came when she was in the hospital for surgery and her partner threw scalding coffee on her, disconnecting her oxygen and IV.

Then the 32-year-old undocumented mom in California learned about the U Visa, which became her ticket to a new life.

The visa has been around since 2000, but little remains known about it.

"This U visa helped me change my life" says Diana, who is from Mexico and did not want her real name published. "I almost got killed by my abuser.”

The U Visa allows undocumented immigrants who are the victims of domestic abuse to work legally and leave the cycle of violence.

Hospital staff called police and her abuser fled, avoiding arrest. After the attack Diana was able to secure a five-year restraining order.

Leaving Mexico, she originally came to the United States on a tourist visa, and did not return to her homeland when it expired. Because of her undocumented status, Diana says, she was scared to go to the police to report her abuser.

"Before I was saved, it was so hard to think outside of this cycle" Diana says, "it is easy when you are in it to think you deserve to be treated this way.”

Eventually, Diana became so scared of her partner and afraid for the safety of her baby daughter that it became clear to her that she had to flee her abuser.

She got help through a family services center where she spent time sharing her story with a psychologist.  It was during her visits with the psychologist that she learned about the U Visa.

“This is when I made the decision to apply" says Diana.

The U Visa is available to undocumented immigrant women across the United States, but there is a lack of resources for the visa to be used to its full potential, said Susan Bowyer, directing attorney of The Immigration Center for Women and Children in San Francisco.

"There is not enough outreach for the visa to really help the people it could provide the most assistance to,” says Bowyer.

The visa provides a protective service -- applicants do not need to fear being separated from their children, they will not have to leave the country and will not be required to face their abuser.  

To make it easier, legal service organizations help victims gather the documentation required for the U Visa.

Some centers that help victims of abuse charge a small fee for assistance in handling the U Visa application, others provide the service free of charge.

The visa application can take six to nine months to be processed. When the application is approved, victims are able to work and start their new lives away from their abuser.  In some states, victims are eligible to apply for welfare benefits as soon as they submit their applications.

During the time that Diana applied for her visa, for example, she was also able to apply for public benefits and found a safe place away from her abuser in a shelter.

One year after her U Visa was approved, Diana's life is completely changed.

She now works as a nurse's aide and is training to be a registered nurse.

"I want to share this information so other women can learn from my story and live a better life,” she says.

For more information about the U Visa, visit www.islabay.org

Sacha DeVoretz is a freelance journalist based in Canada.

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