On a rainy morning in 2011, as Divina Olmedo waited for the bus to her job at a McDonalds restaurant, two men rushed toward her.
While one held two pistols to Olmedo's face, the other ripped her purse from her hands. The assault would paralyze her with fear for nearly a year.
"I kept shaking," Olmedo said. "I couldn't speak. I was like that for a long time — bad.
“I went running, running, and looking both ways. It was so ugly.”Divina Olmedo
She was so haunted by the 5 a.m. attack that she didn't want to leave her house for several months afterward.
"I felt like they were watching me from outside," she said. "I went to work, frightened. The first minutes that it would start raining outside, I went running, running, and looking both ways. It was so ugly."
An unauthorized immigrant from Mexico, Olmedo was afraid to call Minneapolis police. Her daughter, a permanent U.S. resident, reported the crime for her, setting in motion the process that could allow Olmedo to legalize her status in the United States, at least for a while.
As the victim of a crime, Olmedo, 52, could be eligible for a special visa for unauthorized immigrants who are victims of domestic violence and sexual assault and who also assist authorities in investigations or prosecutions.
Known as U visas, they grant victims and their close relatives temporary legal status and work eligibility for three years.
A bill passed by the U.S. Senate in June would expand the number of U visas granted nationwide from 10,000 to 18,000. Federal lawmakers are expected to continue the debate on a federal immigration overhaul when Congress reconvenes Sept. 9.
Although Olmedo did not know it at the time, by reporting the crime to the police, she took the first step toward a U visa, which federal authorities have issued since 2009.
"I felt like, with my address, they could come for me," she said.
It took Olmedo one year to perform the next part of the process: contacting a lawyer. Olmedo thought calling a lawyer could be a trap, afraid that her address would be traced through the phone line and that federal immigration authorities would deport her.
Olmedo has been in the United States since 1999, when she took a bus from Oaxaca, Mexico, to northern Mexico. She crossed la frontera, or the borderlands, without permission by walking through the desert for four days, and then took a bus from Phoenix to Los Angeles. She moved to Minnesota a year later, where her late husband has relatives.
Fear of deportation prevents many unauthorized immigrants from reporting crimes to police, even when it would help them, said Michelle Egan Burke, a former attorney for Immigration and Naturalization Services.
"They all know if they drive without a license, they're just turned right over into immigration for deportation," said Egan Burke, who does not know Olmedo. "So to approach a law enforcement authority is a really frightening thing."
Olmedo eventually overcame her fear of deportation and contacted an attorney to formally apply for a U visa. But they would need police to certify the application to prove that she had been a victim of a serious crime.
Because such certifications are given at the discretion of authorities, obtaining one can be difficult, Egan Burke said.
"The law for the U visa, says that to start the case, the [applicant] must get the certification from the latest prosecuting authority," she said. "But there's nothing in the law that says the prosecuting authority has to work the certification."
“What did they want, for me to die? For the men to hit me? For them to leave me unconscious, incapacitated, or in a wheelchair -- all just to have the evidence?”Divina Olmedo
For Olmedo, that was especially trying. Minneapolis officers told her they needed more evidence that the crime actually occurred.
"They didn't want to give the signature because they needed a video or proof of what had happened to me," she said. "What did they want, for me to die? For the men to hit me? For them to leave me unconscious, incapacitated, or in a wheelchair — all just to have the evidence?"
After multiple attempts over a year, Olmedo and her lawyer finally obtained the certification she needed. In January, they sent her application for a visa to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Vermont, where it is being processed.
In each of the last four years, the number of U visa applications has exceeded the federal limit for approved U visas of 10,000.
Typically it takes between a year or two for applicants to obtain a U visa, said Rosie Hidalgo, director of public policy for the St. Paul-based Casa de Esperanza, which provides services to victims of domestic violence. She thinks immigration authorities are too slow in processing them.
"Imagine if someone is leaving a domestic violence situation and yet maybe potentially has to wait 18 months from the time they submit their application to get a work authorization," Hidalgo said. "That is extremely problematic. Unfortunately that kind of bureaucratic delay doesn't fit with the reality."
The pending immigration bill passed by the U.S. Senate would expand the number of eligible crimes covered by the U visa to include elderly abuse, child abuse, and workplace violations.
If Olmedo receives a U visa, she hopes to find a better paying job and learn to drive. She'd like visit her aging mother in Mexico, and then, enter the United States differently than how she did 14 years ago.
"If I go to Mexico, I will no longer have to come walking through the desert," she said. "I'll come directly, through the doorway."