Feds: Gaston DA won’t ban Latinos from help on visas

Federal authorities said Monday that Gaston County District Attorney Locke Bell would no longer use nationality to determine when undocumented immigrant victims of crime can apply to stay in the United States legally.

The announcement comes after an Observer story last month revealed that Bell refused to help Latino crime victims who were seeking U visas, which grant immigrants living here illegally the right to remain in the country for four years and seek permanent residence.

Congress created the program 15 years ago to encourage undocumented immigrants to report crimes to police without fear of deportation. It requires them to obtain a signature from the district attorney’s office, police or a judge verifying they were victims of a serious crime and cooperated with investigators and prosecutors.

But Bell has said that if a crime victim is Latino and the accused is also Latino, he would not sign the paperwork. Bell said he would only certify cases for Latino immigrants who are victimized by non-Latino assailants.

Critics said his policy violated federal law prohibiting discrimination based on race.

In a prepared statement released Monday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office that covers the Charlotte area and western North Carolina said officials met with Bell last month to discuss the issue.

Bell agreed that he would not consider nationality when certifying U visa applications, the statement said.

A spokeswoman for Acting U.S. Attorney Jill Westmoreland Rose declined comment. Bell did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Bell’s policy sparked outcry from Latinos and immigration activists. The Charlotte-based Latin American Coalition is asking people in Gaston County, who were denied U visas, to come forward to seek legal aid.

Immigrant advocates said they were pleased with Monday’s news, but not overly optimistic that it would stop discrimination against undocumented immigrants.

“I hope Mr. Bell will not find other ways to prevent (victims) from obtaining U visas,” said Bea Coté, a local advocate for domestic violence victims.

Coté characterized Monday’s announcement as a “small victory” because she remains concerned about how the district attorney’s office treats cases involving domestic violence.

Congress formed the U visa program in October 2000 with bipartisan support as part of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act. The law is designed to help police investigate domestic violence, sexual assaults, human trafficking and other crimes.

The federal government annually grants a maximum 10,000 U visas to people who can prove they suffered substantial physical or mental harm. About 26,000 people applied last year.

Applicants start by getting local police, the district attorney’s office or a judge to sign paperwork confirming their cases. The documents then go to the federal government, which conducts background checks and determines whether to issue the visa.

But Bell’s former policy shows that lax oversight means local law enforcement officials can refuse to certify U visa applications for arbitrary reasons, said John Pinnix, a Raleigh immigration attorney.

Prosecutors and other law enforcement officials are under no legal obligation to certify paperwork for immigrants. Local law enforcement have discretion over which cases they will verify.

Pinnix said Bell’s practices were identified only because he was brazen enough to share them with a reporter. He said federal lawmakers should revisit the issue, but that is unlikely given the political divide over immigration.

“We encounter (police) departments where the law enforcement officer has moved on and is not available and their replacement is unwilling to go by the paperwork,” Pinnix said. “People who deal with this regularly have massive frustrations.”

Clasen-Kelly: 704-358-5027

Related stories from Charlotte Observer