Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Special visa cases so far this year rival 2007 total

Number of domestic violence prosecutions in county drops

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A domestic violence case due to be closed with a sentencing tomorrow is one of a growing number of cases in the county that makes use of a little known provision allowing illegal immigrants to gain legal status if they cooperate in a prosecution.

There have been nine cases involving U-visas in the county so far this year, said Assistant State’s Attorney Karla Smith. That compares to 13 such cases in 2006 and 11 such cases last year, she said.

The U-visa provision was created in the federal Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000. To qualify for the visa, authorities must verify that a victim of a crime such as domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking participated in the investigation and⁄or prosecution of a suspect.

U-visas are good for four years and give legal status to residents and can transition into permanent status, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

A Montgomery Village woman, a victim of domestic violence, is one of the nine U-visa candidates who have worked with the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office this year.

Manuel Donis Davilla, who was the woman’s live-in boyfriend, was found guilty of attempted murder and related charges during a four-day trial in Circuit Court in January. He will be sentenced Thursday and faces life in prison.

In her opening statement during the trial, Assistant State’s Attorney Deborah Feinstein said Davilla planned to beat the woman unconscious. ‘‘He then planned to tie her up. After that he planned to pour paint thinner all over her body and to set her on fire,” she said.

Davilla’s lawyer, Mary Tyler, tried to establish that the woman exaggerated her story in order to gain legal status through the U-visa provision.

But the State’s Attorney’s Office is not overly worried about being misled by people seeking U-visa status.

‘‘We have not had any experience with questioning anyone’s reasoning for doing it,” Smith said.

A drop in cases

For the first time in six years, the number of domestic violence cases heard in Montgomery County courts dropped last year.

They are down more than 14 percent, from 2,642 cases in 2006 to 2,266 cases last year, according to records kept by the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office.

Hannah Sassoon, domestic violence coordinator for the sheriff’s office, would not speculate on the reason for the decline, but confirmed that immigrants account for at least a third of domestic violence victims in the county.

Community activist Grace Rivera-Oven, an immigrant advocate, believes a growing fear of law enforcement related to immigration status in the Latino community is responsible for the drop.

‘‘A lot of these women will be abused over and over,” she said. ‘‘... When you have a lot to lose, when you have children involved, when you have the lack of status — all those ingredients, they’re ingredients for disaster.”

Situations like the one Rivera-Oven described are why the U-visa provision exists.

‘‘Having this protection available is a really important gesture,” said Jessica Vaughn, a senior policy analyst with the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that favors strict enforcement against illegal immigrants and tighter restrictions on immigration overall. ‘‘This is one tool that we hope will encourage them and help them understand that victims of crime should...come forward, that they should not be afraid.”

What Vaughn’s group questions is the provision that allows U-visas to become permanent.

‘‘There should be some threshold of extreme hardship for them not to go [back to their native countries]. After all, they were here illegally, and we have 6 million people waiting in line with sponsors.”

Nearly 92 percent of the 11,830 immigrants nationwide who applied for the U-visa since 2001 have been granted interim relief, Vaughn said.

Under federal rules, up to 10,000 U-visas will be doled out each year, not including victims’ family members deemed eligible to stay, according to the federal immigration service.

domestic violence

Domestic Violence cases recorded in Montgomery County District Court and Circuit Court, by year:

2001: 1,921

2002: 2,092

2003: 2,094

2004: 2,270

2005: 2,529

2006: 2,642

2007: 2,266

Source: Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office