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Californian contributing columnist Jose Gaspar.

Henry A. Barrios/ The Californian

As they say in the real estate business, it's all about location, location, location.

The same philosophy appears to be the case for undocumented immigrants who apply for a U visa. A bipartisan Congress created the U visa program in 2000 under the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act. Realizing that undocumented immigrants are prime targets of violent crimes who are afraid to speak out because of their legal status, the intent was to give these victims an incentive to cooperate with law enforcement to catch the perpetrators without fear of deportation.

People granted a U visa can temporarily live and work in the country while his or her case makes its way through the judicial system. Ultimately, it is the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service that decides who is eligible for a U visa.

But there's a catch.

A local law enforcement agency, such as police, sheriff's or district attorney's office, must first sign a form certifying the applicant was helpful in the investigation or prosecution of a qualifying crime. Law enforcement doesn't determine whether an applicant receives a U visa. But it can ensure an applicant does NOT get one by refusing to sign the certifying form.

And if you are the victim of a violent crime in parts of Kern County and need certification from the Sheriff's Office or District Attorney's offices, your chances are nearly non-existent.

The Kern County Sheriff's Office received 160 requests for certification between 2012 and 2014. A grand total of four were granted. Sheriff Donny Youngblood has a philosophical difference with a program that helps give undocumented immigrants a chance to stay.

"I don't believe if you're a victim of a crime you should get to stay," said Youngblood. "Just because you're a victim of a crime is not a reason to stay in the country illegally."

Only if that person is crucial as a witness and needed to testify will the sheriff consider signing off on the certifying form. That doesn't sit well with local immigration attorneys.

"The sheriff misunderstands the role of law enforcement in the U visa program," said Bakersfield immigration attorney Win Eaton. "All he has to do is sign a form, he isn't certifying that the person should get the U visa."

The ACLU has taken note of the county's dismal record to help undocumented immigrants come forward and seek justice from the agencies entrusted to fight for them. Regardless of the politics surrounding immigration reform, the law was intended to promote community relations with law enforcement and other investigatory agencies.

And here in Kern County we have a sizeable number of undocumented immigrants who need and deserve equal protection under the law.

"It's not up to Donny Youngblood to decide what the policy should be," said ACLU staff attorney Jennie Pasquarella.

The Kern County District Attorney's office appears to hold a similar line as the sheriff. District Attorney Lisa Green has said she has refused to certify some U visa forms because people waited too long to ask for certification.

The fallacy of that argument is that there is no time limit, no statute of limitations on how long a person can wait to submit a request. The fact that a person was a victim of a crime apparently doesn't matter.

A recent study by the University of North Carolina School of Immigration Law found this to be in stark contrast to the practice in Marin County.

According to the report, Marin County certifies through the Victim's Witness Program in the District Attorney's office. The certifying official is already an advocate for victims and has access to court, police and CPS records and has undergone training with USCIS. It also benefits the D.A.'s office during prosecution to work with the victims.

Kern County Assistant District Attorney Mark Pafford is in charge of certification, but said he doesn't keep track of how many forms have been approved. Pafford said his office has no policy on how it handles certification requests; he reviews each one on a case-by-case basis.

But there appears to be one agency that gets it: the Bakersfield Police Department. Its practice is to fill out the certification form when requested in a case it is investigating and send it back to the immigration attorney.

"All that we're doing is confirming that a person is a victim of a crime," said BPD Sgt. Joe Grubbs. "It's none of our business if a person is undocumented."

Amen!

Sadly, this wide disparity among law enforcement in Kern County is actually playing out on a national scale.

According to the ACLU, law enforcement agencies in San Francisco, Los Angeles and even Phoenix certify forms that qualify. The California Highway Patrol, Sacramento Police Department and Riverside County Sheriff's Office refuse to cooperate.

"It's a hit-and-miss prospect," said Pasquarella of the ACLU.

National Crime Victims' Rights week is coming up. Law enforcement groups will be giving speeches and marching in solidarity with families of crime victims. What will likely not be mentioned is their record on complying with a simple request attesting that an undocumented immigrant was the victim of a crime. Simple politics.

Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a reporter for KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News. Email him at elcompa29@gmail.com. His work appears here every third Monday; the views expressed are his own.

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