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Disconnect between immigrants and the law leads to confusion

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After chatting with a colleague, Marion County Deputy Prosecutor Andrew Fogle decided something needed to be done about the relationship between immigrants and law enforcement.

“There is a great deal of confusion on both sides as to what your rights are, what you can do,” Fogle said.

Fogle and Maria Wildridge, Latino services director for the prosecutor’s office, identified a need for law enforcement and people involved in immigration issues to discuss how to bridge the gap.
 

fogle-andy-mug.jpg Fogle

“Maria and I decided we needed to reach out to the groups and organizations that are working with this population,” Fogle said.

Plans are in development for a one-day seminar in July that will bring together law enforcement, pro bono, and immigrant advocacy representatives in an effort to make sure everyone understands all viewpoints regarding immigrants and their interaction with the legal system.

New laws, new discussions
A new law passed in the Indiana Legislature this spring has resulted in much debate about who is responsible for enforcing its many provisions and how that will be done.

Christie Popp, directing attorney for the Indiana Legal Services Immigrants’ and Language Rights Center in Bloomington, said the new law, Senate Enrolled Act 590, worries many immigrants.

“Even before this legislation was passed, I was getting so many calls from my clients. There was so much concern and misinformation about what was in this law,” she said.

Popp and others say that they know many immigrants are fearful of police. Undocumented immigrants especially worry that interaction with the police – even as a victim or witness – could result in deportation. Indiana’s new law attempts to address that concern, stating that when reporting a crime immigrants do not need to provide proof of their status to police. This subtle revision to the Indiana Code may make immigrants more inclined to come forward when they are witnesses to or victims of violent crime. But no one seems to be able to say specifically how that information will be disseminated to the people who need to know it.

Kerry Hyatt Blomquist, legal director for the Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said that getting victims of domestic violence to testify against their accusers can be difficult, especially if victims worry about being deported.

“I can say, ‘Hey your immigration status is not going to be important at this protective hearing,’ but I’ve got to get to them first,” Blomquist said.

Fogle also noted that domestic violence cases involving immigrant victims can be difficult to prosecute.

“You have people arrested on domestic violence, and the victims are afraid to talk to us, they’re afraid they’re going to get deported,” he said. Without cooperation from the victim, the prosecutor’s office may lose a case, which Fogle said is a concern secondary to protecting the victim.

The seeds of distrust
The Pew Hispanic Center reports that of the approximately 322,000 people in Indiana in 2008 who called themselves Hispanic, about 78 percent listed Mexico as their country of origin.

In its 2010 report, “Barriers to justice for immigrants: Distrust of police, language barriers,” Human Rights Watch stated that Mexican laws regarding domestic violence against girls and women are, at best, inadequate. Victims who do report abuse, the report says, often find police treat them with apathy, suspicion, or disrespect. And some abusers may be penalized only after they’ve repeatedly attacked their victims.

So even in the United States, victims may be unsure what to expect from police.

Melissa Arvin, supervising attorney for the Marion County Prosecutor’s Domestic Violence Division, said she thinks that the Hispanic population may also be leery of police based on misconceptions that arise from local interactions. For example, she said that if an immigrant has a negative experience within the court system or with police, word of that experience may spread through the community and contribute to the distrust of police.

A questionable resource
One resource currently available to undocumented victims of certain crimes is the Petition for U Nonimmigrant Status – commonly referred to as the U Visa. The U Visa protects undocumented immigrants from deportation, to encourage their cooperation in prosecuting their attackers. The petition must be certified by a local agency before being submitted to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services office.

“The vast majority of calls we get are immigration cases, and a significant number are people seeking relief because they are victims of violence,” Popp said. “The vast majority of people who seek U Visas are victims of domestic violence, usually perpetrated by a husband or a boyfriend.”

Popp said that generally, she has been successful in getting U Visas certified for those who need them. But she said that in one northern Indiana county, officials refused to certify her client’s U Visa application, even though the client was a rape victim who testified in court, and the offender was prosecuted for the crime.

Agencies eligible to certify U Visa applications include police departments, prosecutor’s offices, the Department of Labor, and others. But agencies are not required by law to sign the I-918 certification form. Furthermore, agencies and attorneys may not agree on the interpretation of the form’s language.

Marco Moreno, an attorney with Indianapolis law firm Lewis & Kappes who specializes in immigration matters, recently attempted to get a U Visa for a man who had been stabbed in the back. Moreno said that he appealed to two attorneys in Indianapolis’ Office of Corporation Counsel, but that his client was denied the U Visa twice on the grounds he would not meet the requirements for being “helpful,” as outlined on the certification form.

Moreno provided Indiana Lawyer with copies of the letters from the city attorneys, which stated that the victim’s testimony was neither credible nor reliable, and therefore, the victim could not be considered “helpful” in solving the crime.

In his appeal of that determination, Moreno wrote a letter specifying, “At all times, Mr. Cortez was cooperative with police and the investigator, going to meetings with authorities, photo line-ups, speaking over the phone with investigators, and providing as much information as possible.” Moreno said his client was able to provide a description of his assailant’s skin and clothing color after being stabbed in the back several times. “This information was provided to the best of his knowledge and recollection while in a position of imminent death,” Moreno wrote.

Moreno said he was unsure what he could now do to help his client. The case was closed, with no arrests made.

“Even though this U Visa is available, in my opinion, it is not being utilized as it is intended to be,” Moreno said.

Arvin, who oversees U Visa applications for her division, said she will not certify a U Visa if there has been no criminal case.

“I don’t feel like I should be signing off if there’s not been some sort of prosecution,” she said. “I’m not saying they’re not cooperative with somebody else,” she added, noting that a victim could also ask the local police to sign the form.

“I wait until the cases are over – I won’t sign off on anything that’s pending,” she added.

Fogle said U Visas are just one of many topics that he hopes will be on the agenda for the seminar he and others are planning.

“Our position from the prosecutor’s office is that we understand this population,” he said, of the growing number of immigrants and refugees. “Our focus is criminal justice and protection of the public, and that very much means protection of victims and witnesses.”•

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