A North Carolina county prosecutor won’t certify visa applications for Latino domestic violence victims if their assailants are also Latino. In an interview with the Charlotte Observer, Gaston County District Attorney Locke Bell said that he would only certify U visa applications, designated for victims of domestic abuse or violence, for Latinos if their abusers are non-Latino.
“It was never intended to protect Latinos from Latinos,” Bell told the Charlotte Observer. “It was designed to protect them from high-crime areas.”
Congress created the U visa program through the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 to encourage victims of violence to assist in the investigation or prosecution of a crime. After three years of continuous presence in the United States, U visa holders can apply for lawful permanent resident status. Law enforcement officials and prosecutors cannot confer legal status by signing the I-918B application needed for a U visa petition, but their signatures are needed as part of a victim’s petition to meet eligibility requirements.
In March, Bell rejected certifying an U visa application from an immigrant named Evelin whose boyfriend allegedly punched her in the stomach when she was pregnant. She went to the police to press charges, an action that made her eligible for the visa. In documents obtained by the Charlotte Observer, Bell wrote, “Assault on a Latino by a Latino is not the rationale for the statute.”
Theodore Maloney, a Charlotte-based immigration attorney representing Evelin said, “Race is never mentioned in the statute. It’s offensive someone with this much power has chosen this response.” Evelin recently said that her ex-boyfriend came back to the United States to abuse her, but she said that she wasn’t sure whether she would file another police report because Bell rejected her initial U visa application. Evelin said, “It’s unjust. He needs to remember we are all humans.”
According to the Charlotte Observer, the “U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency that oversees the program, says it has no power to force Bell to change his practice. In a written statement, the agency said prosecutors and other law enforcement officials are under no legal obligation to certify paperwork for immigrants. The rules give local law enforcement complete discretion over which cases they will verify, the federal agency said.”
The Gaston Gazette reported that this was not the first time Bell refused to certify a U visa based on race. Gastonia immigration attorney Ron Shook “who often represents local Latino victims of crime,” told the Gaston Gazette, “This is something I’ve definitely experienced. And in this case, he has come right out and said he uses race as a factor,” said Shook. “You’ve got to hand it to him that he’s honest and straightforward about his policy, as misguided as that might be.”
Immigrants can encounter a host of issues when they begin the U visa process across the United States, in which “certification policies were found to be inconsistent, non-uniform, and at variance with the purpose of the U visa statute, regulations, and DHS/USCIS guidance,” a 2013 University of North Carolina study found.
Prosecutors and law enforcement officials in other parts of the country are known for rejecting U visa applications as well. The UNC study found that “the City of Dallas, Texas, and the City of Pasco, Washington stated that they have blanket policies that deny I-918B certifications for U visa applicants. Other certifying agencies also have blanket denial policies. For example, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services stated that they did not ‘submit or certify U visas for families.’”
The UNC study also found that the police chief at the Spring Lake Minnesota Police Department “said that he would not feel ‘comfortable’ certifying U visa applications to anyone that he did not know personally. The Sheriff’s Department of Orange County, Florida stated that they were within their discretion to deny U visa certifications where the cases had concluded years before a request for certification had been made. A Superior Court judge in Cass County, Indiana wrote an order stating that he would not certify because the ‘execution of Certification by a member of the judiciary on behalf of an individual may constitute a violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct.’” And In Kern County, California, Sheriff Donny Youngblood “has largely refused to sign paperwork that immigrant crime victims need to apply for U visas,” the Los Angeles Times reported.
A recent survey of 800 Latinos found that at least 56 percent of Latinos know a domestic violence victim, while one in four people know a victim of sexual assault. Among the younger Latino generation, the pattern of violence was about the same: half of all surveyed Latinos under the age of 30 reported that they know a victim of domestic violence, while one in four reported that they know someone who was a victim of sexual assault. The top reason that Latinos indicated that victims don’t come forward or seek help is because of the fear of deportation, closely followed by having their children taken away, and facing more violence.
There were 26,023 U visa petitions for the 10,000-per-year annual cap last year. The Los Angeles Times reported that there was “even a wait to get to on the waiting list” since the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) stopped reviewing applications submitted after December 2013.