Earlier this year I wrote about how difficult if can be for an undocumented immigrant who is the victim of a crime to get help from law enforcement when it comes to filling out a simple government document. It's a form that asks one question: Was this person helpful in cooperating with the investigation or prosecution of a crime?
If law enforcement fills out the form and answers yes, the feds MAY grant the crime victim a chance to get a U visa, which allows him or her to live and work temporarily in the country while the case makes its way through the judicial system.
So it's good to see that the Kern County District Attorney's office has come around in recognizing the need to get involved. It recently re-visited its long-standing policy on U visas and decided to make some changes.
"We found our approach was outdated and not furthering the spirit of the law," said District Attorney Lisa Green. "When we realized we were not doing all that we could to protect and assist vulnerable crime victims, we changed our policy."
After meeting with a coalition of local community groups led by Faith in Action, the DA's office opened its new Family Violence Unit, headed by veteran prosecutor Melissa Allen. Its sole focus is on fighting domestic violence, sexual assault, elder abuse and physical abuse of children.
Additionally, all requests for a U-visa certification will be handled through Allen. This makes good sense because a majority of crimes committed against undocumented immigrants are handled by this unit.
A bipartisan Congress created the U-visa program in 2000 under the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act. Realizing that undocumented immigrants victimized by violent crime are often afraid to speak out because of their legal status, lawmakers gave them an incentive to cooperate with law enforcement and help catch the perpetrators.
Ultimately, it is the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) that decides who is eligible for a U visa.
Green said that from November 2012 through March 2015, her office reviewed 117 requests for U visas. Forty-three were certified. Since implementation of the new policy in April, the DA's office has received 14 requests and approved them all.
Why is this important? It can be difficult enough for a victim of a violent crime to navigate the judicial maze without worrying about being deported if he or she reports the crime to the cops. So some victims stay silent while their attacker gets away scot-free.
Consider the case of Sam, a 28-year-old who fled threats to his life in India and is seeking asylum in the U.S. after entering the country illegally from Canada a few years ago. He asked that his last name not be published.
In 2013, Sam was robbed, brutally beaten and left unconscious on the side of a road along Highway 119, leaving him with severe head trauma and a fractured cheekbone, according to Kern County sheriff's reports. He lay there for two hours before help arrived.
Sam promptly reported the assault and has been cooperating with sheriff's investigators working the case. But Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood rejected his request to have his U-visa form completed, said Sam's attorney, Win Eaton.
You'd think crime victims such as Sam who've suffered felonious assault and are seeking asylum in the U.S. should have no problem getting law enforcement to certify a U-visa form.
Another victim, 26-year-old Alfredo, was 5 years old when he was brought to the U.S. undocumented from Mexico. He attended school in Kern County, graduated from high school and went on to college. He is now in law school.
As a child, he was repeatedly sexually assaulted by a family member, said Katie Traverso of the American Civil Liberties Union. As a child, Alfredo was fearful and ashamed and did not report the abuse. Eventually, the family member turned himself in to the Kern County Sheriff's Office.
The Californian does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault.
Though Alfredo cooperated in the investigation, the Sheriff's Office denied his request for a U-visa certification, Traverso said. When Alfredo graduates from law school, he hopes to help other victims of domestic violence in Kern County, but his options to do so are limited without U-visa certification.
Youngblood said he will not certify a U-visa form unless the crime victim's cooperation is absolutely essential in investigating a case. Out of 160 requests submitted to the Sheriff's Office between 2012 and 2014, only four were certified.
A check with police departments in Bakersfield, Delano, McFarland and Arvin found they fill out the forms on a regular basis. Those in Tehachapi, Taft, Ridgecrest and California City have not received U-visa requests, but would review any that did come in on a case-by-case basis.
Legally, Youngblood can ignore certifying U-visa requests because the law leaves it up to each law enforcement agency whether to participate. But the ACLU recently sent a letter to the sheriff asking him to comply with the spirit of the law.
Refusal to comply jeopardizes lives, drives victims of crime further into the shadows and makes the community as a whole less safe, the letter says.
The sheriff's response?
"The ACLU letter means nothing to me," said Youngblood, who doesn't particularly like a program that helps undocumented immigrants stay in the country.
"I don't believe if you're a victim of a crime you should get to stay," he said.
Once upon a time, the Kern County District Attorney's office had a similar stance, but change for the better can happen.
"If our policy results in more victims coming forward and cooperating with law enforcement and with prosecutors, then I view that as a good thing," Green said.
Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a reporter for KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News. Email him at email@example.com. His work appears here every third Monday; the views expressed are his own.