According to Locke Bell, the district attorney of Gaston County, North Carolina, the ethnicity of a domestic-violence survivor can disqualify that person from equal protection under the law. The Charlotte Observer reports that Bell refused to certify a domestic violence survivor’s visa application because he thinks the relevant law protecting crime victims “was never intended to protect Latinos from Latinos.”
The controversy surrounds Evelin, a domestic violence survivor who courageously called police to press charges against her abusive boyfriend. She says he punched her, kicked her, and pulled her hair. Two weeks ago, he returned to her home after being deported, accused her of seeing another man, and repeatedly kicked her. Evelin reported the crime to the police and, as is her right, applied for a U visa.
U visas are for victims of certain crimes who have suffered mental or physical abuse and are helpful to law enforcement or government officials in the investigation or prosecution of the crime. Congress created the nonimmigrant, temporary U visa in 2000 — as part of legislation that included the Battered Immigrant Women’s Protection Act. The visa, contrary to what Bell believes, makes no distinctions based on ethnicity or immigration status.
After hearing that Bell disqualified her from protection based on her ethnicity, Evelin commented: “It’s unfair. It’s unjust. He needs to remember we are all humans.” Michael Moore, president of the National District Attorneys Association (NDAA), agreed, telling Latin Times: “I can’t even find the words to describe [what Bell reportedly did] . . . unprofessional is enough … despicable might be close.” Moore suggested that if Bell were an NDAA member he’d be subject to expulsion.
If you were expecting the federal government to denounce Bell’s policy, you’ll be disappointed.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services administers U visas. It had at least two opportunities to condemn Bell’s racist policy, but the agency has chosen to stay silent. USCIS instead feebly pointed journalists to a website explaining that visa certifications are left to the discretion of prosecutors and law enforcement. But Bell’s decision has nothing to do with the lawful exercise of discretion: It is blatant ethnic discrimination that USCIS and federal civil rights officials should have condemned in the strongest terms.
The Obama administration needs to make amends, go into affected communities, and show that it cares about immigrant crime victims wherever they live.
A study by the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Law Immigration/Human Rights Policy Clinic concluded based on survey results that “over 190 certifying agencies [for U visas] refuse to certify based on standards that seem to go beyond the scope of what was intended by Congress.” It criticized the “geography roulette” that determines whether a survivor gets protected. The DePaul University Asylum & Immigration Law Clinic similarly found that “the location of crime has increasingly played a major role in a victim’s access to justice as a result of disparate treatment of U certification.”
In other words, a whole bunch of jurisdictions are denying domestic-violence and other crime survivors’ U-visa certifications in cases despite their eligibility for such visas. Therefore, USCIS urgently needs to be more active in these locations, educating prosecutors and law enforcement agencies about U visas, as well as seeking certification alternatives in recalcitrant jurisdictions.
The UNC study also recommends that the Department of Homeland Security “issue new and/or revised policy memoranda and guidance to give clarity and greater definition regarding the scope of authority of certifying agencies and the parameters of acceptable practice.” New regulations are needed to end the disparate outcomes for similarly situated immigrant crime victims. Congress should also change the U-visa law to allow qualifying applicants who are wrongly refused certification to receive a U visa from USCIS.
USCIS needs to show that it’s taking Bell’s prejudiced policies seriously by working to eradicate all illegitimate obstacles to U-visa certification. The Obama administration must affirm that racism and national origin animus have no place in U.S. law or life and that it will leave no domestic-violence or other immigrant survivors of crime unprotected.
Evelin and countless others deserve no less.