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August 1, 2014

Lawyers: CMPD’s U-visa backlog undermines crime victims

For years, getting a U-visa in Charlotte has been a slow process for undocumented immigrants. Now, police are promising changes to a program aimed at prosecuting violent criminals.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Chief Rodney Monroe says his department will adopt new procedures following criticism of its handling of a program that encourages immigrant crime victims to help prosecute their assailants.

Attorneys blame CMPD for the long delays endured by crime victims. The department has taken up to a year to process applications for the special document known as a U-visa.

Since 2008, federal authorities have granted 10,000 U-visas a year to entice undocumented immigrants to assist police and prosecutors. To apply for a U-visa, immigrants need local law officers to verify they were victims of domestic violence, rape, attempted murder or other serious crimes.

Until recently, CMPD had no supervisor who ensured the work was getting done. Instead, it was left up to individual captains and majors to collect and enter data and investigate applicants.

The delays left immigrants in legal limbo, unsure whether they could remain in the country. In a few cases, attorneys said, crime victims were deported while waiting for an answer.

In a recent interview, Monroe acknowledged CMPD had failed to install an “orderly process” for handling applications. He said that new procedures will allow undocumented immigrants to submit requests for certification by computer. He predicted the changes will cut down wait times from an average of six months to 45 days or less.

“A lot of police departments are dealing with this,” said Maj. Diego Anselmo, who will oversee the U-visa certification process. “There is now a recognition that there has to be a system in place.”

Hundreds of undocumented immigrants are awaiting the chance to apply for U-visas. In the past, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police received about 50 applications a year. That jumped to about 500 in the first five months of 2014.

The Pew Hispanic Center estimates the undocumented population in North Carolina at around 325,000 people, and other agencies believe close to 50,000 live in Charlotte.

A U-visa allows immigrants and their families to stay in the U.S. for four years and apply for permanent residency on humanitarian grounds.

The visas are critical for people such as Deysi Medina Sanchez, who came to the United States illegally from Mexico. She suffered beatings and threats for 10 years before she went to police and helped prosecute her husband.

But when Sanchez tried to obtain a U-visa, the bureaucratic delays and confusion left her fearing for her life.

Sanchez said she lived in constant fear while she waited for a decision about the U-visa. She was afraid of deportation and her abusive husband.

“My husband told me he was going to get out of jail and kill me and take my kids,” she said.

Advocates for undocumented immigrants are angered by the delays at CMPD.

“I know they just don’t want to sign off willy-nilly, but a year?” said Reid Trautz of the Washington-based American Immigration Lawyers Association. “Why should it take that long?”

Certifying U-visa paperwork was “a low priority” for police officers, said Stefan Latorre, a Charlotte immigration attorney and chairman of the city’s Immigration Integration Task Force. “(Officers) would say, ‘It’s on my desk, but it’s not my priority. I’m here to solve crime.’ ”

Clogged and confusing

Since it was signed into law in 2000, the U-visa program has been hailed as a strategy to improve relations between police and immigrants. Supporters say it allows undocumented immigrants to report crimes more freely, gets criminals off the streets, and makes women and children safer.

But the U-visa program has never run smoothly. The federal government took nearly seven years to implement rules for the program. Officials didn’t issue the first one until 2008, and then only after a lawsuit from activist groups.

To get a U-visa, immigrants start by getting local police, the district attorney’s office or a judge to sign paperwork confirming they were victims of serious crimes and have cooperated with investigators and prosecutors.

Then, documents go to U.S. officials, who conduct background checks and decide whether to issue the visa. After receiving the local report, immigration officials typically take six to nine months to approve or deny an application because the system is backlogged.

More than 25,000 people nationwide applied for U-visas in fiscal 2013 compared with roughly 6,800 in 2009, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which handles the requests.

The delays leave immigrants with a tenuous legal status. If a case is deferred, which can give an applicant one year of protection from deportation while the application is reviewed, they cannot visit family abroad or bring children to the United States during that time.

Long waits in Charlotte

Local attorneys complain that Charlotte’s U-visa applicants wait longer than those in other cities because CMPD has been so slow.

The Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office, which gets about 240 requests each year, said it typically completes the process in 30 to 60 days. The office says it approves 30 percent of about 240 applications each year.

CMPD said it could not provide how many U-visa requests it approves because officials did not keep track.

Charlotte attorney Theodore Maloney advises clients to avoid CMPD and go to the District Attorney’s Office for certification if there was an arrest in their case.

Immigration judges in Charlotte are unwilling to wait a year for CMPD to process paperwork, Maloney said. In some cases, he said, clients had to find another legal argument or face deportation because judges were unwilling to wait.

“It causes a lot of frustration,” said Brad Butler, an immigration attorney. “They have a tremendous backlog. We advise our clients it’s going to be eight months to a year (for CMPD to act).”

Latorre, the attorney, said he believes CMPD took months to respond to U-visa requests because officers were conducting background checks on applicants. He said that step is unnecessary because federal officials conduct their own extensive review.

“I used to get (paperwork) back with comments like, ‘He’s got this crime, he’s got that,’ ” Latorre said. “I explained to them there is no reason to do this.”

But Monroe denied that officers conducted criminal background checks on applicants. He blamed some delays on the lengthy verification process and a recent surge in U-visa applications.

Monroe acknowledged that CMPD has had its own issues. He said he heard complaints that immigrants would come to a police station and find there was no one available to help them. He said handling requests electronically will help the department keep track of documents and identify delays.

“Without automation it was hard to know where the lapses occurred,” Monroe said.

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Researcher Maria David and reporter Franco Ordonez contributed.

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