Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Attempts to discredit victims worry advocates

Law enforcement to be trained in special protection for illegal immigrants

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County prosecutors and others will soon be schooled in the intricacies of special visas that give legal status to illegal immigrants who are victims of certain crimes.

The April 16 seminar on using U-visas as a tool in the fight against domestic violence is being conducted by victims’ advocates who fear the defense tactics of a case tried in January could signal a trend in attempts to discredit as opportunists those who are candidates for the protection.

‘‘I hope that the state will learn how to fight it better,” said Vivian Levi, program coordinator for the county’s Abused Persons Program.

During two days on the witness stand in January, a 49-year-old Montgomery Village woman, an illegal immigrant from Central America, was questioned by the attorney for Manuel Donis-Davilla, her former boyfriend charged with attempted first-degree murder. The lawyer, Mary Tyler, argued that the woman had exaggerated her story in an attempt to get a U-visa, federal protection for victims of domestic violence and certain other crimes who might otherwise not report incidents or not cooperate in an investigation out of fear of deportation. A U-visa grants legal status for four years and can lead to permanent status for the crime victim and some family members.

The Montgomery Village woman said she did not call police or an ambulance after her attack because of her illegal status. Only when her sons forced her to go to the hospital hours later did the crime come to the attention of police.

‘‘It amazes me how a human being sees a victim like this particular woman — she had about 30 or 40 stitches in her head — and can say she asked, ‘Why don’t you try to kill me so I can stay in this country?’” said Antonio Arenas, a legal advocate for The House of Ruth, a domestic violence legal clinic with offices across Maryland. ‘‘... I don’t know how people can even think of such atrocity.”

In the hallway after her testimony on Jan. 18, the woman collapsed in tears in the prosecutor’s arms.

‘‘Thank you for doing this,” Assistant State’s Attorney Deborah Feinstein said to the woman. ‘‘Most don’t go through this.”

Rarely are domestic violence cases handled in Circuit Court; they usually involve second-degree assault charges that are handled quickly in District Court, Levi said. But because this case involved an attempted murder charge, it was transferred to Circuit Court and the defense attorney had months to build a case, including placing calls the victim’s employer regarding the woman’s legal status, she said. This move prompted concerns of a possible deportation prior to trial, Levi said, and her application for a U-visa was filed prior to the trial. U-visa applications, which must be endorsed by law enforcement, are normally filed once cases are settled.

The Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office supported 13 U-visas in 2006 and 11 in 2007. The office has recorded nine such cases already this year.

Montgomery County Police spokeswoman Blanca Kling said she knows of three instances in recent years in which her department endorsed U-visa applicants. Two were for the husbands of victims in the 2002 sniper attacks, she said.

Arenas speculated that the increase in U-visas in Montgomery County could be due to advocates working harder educate the immigrant community about U-visa protections.

As the numbers of U-visa cases increase, law enforcement agencies need to be well versed in them and ready to rebut attempts to discredit victims ‘‘and not allow anything that has to do with undocumented immigrants and the U-visa to sway the case,” Levi said.

Thus the training session later this month for members of the state’s attorney’s office, the sheriff’s office and the Abused Persons Program. The Montgomery Village woman’s case is a likely talking point, Levi said.

‘‘It could be a landmark case,” she said. ‘‘... The effect of this trial could be — even though we had the favorable ruling — that the State’s Attorney’s Office could become more reluctant in signing this requirement.”

The U-visa program is not without its detractors. The Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based think thank that favors strict enforcement of immigration laws, holds that legal status should be reserved only for the most extreme cases and urges law enforcement agencies to be circumspect in protecting against false claims.

‘‘It definitely happens,” said Jessica Vaughn, a senior policy analyst for the group. ‘‘Clearly, there are some people that definitely qualify. But as in every situation, there are going to be people who try to take advantage of it to gain the system.”

Donis-Davilla was found guilty of attempted murder. He is undergoing a psychiatric evaluation and is due to be sentenced this month. He faces life in prison. His victim has been granted legal status under the U-visa provision.