Gaspar case highlights complaints leveled at Ken Buck’s Weld County office

DENVER — Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck wanted to encourage undocumented residents to help bolster public safety by coming forward to report crimes and identify dangerous criminals. His office seemed ready to join a national drive to tamp down victim fears that getting involved in the legal system could only bring trouble and possible deportation. Weld County is home to many undocumented residents, and observers were buoyed by the news. Two years later, they say the results of the effort suggest it was either half hearted or mostly politics.

“We have to advise clients [that much depends] on the jurisdiction,” said Julia Gonzales at Denver-based immigration firm Meyer Law. “In some places, the DA offices get it and totally want people to come forward… In other places, they’re like, ‘I’m not going to go out of my way and help this person who broke the law by being in the country without legal status.”

Weld County seems still to be one of the places where authorities led by the district attorney’s office aren’t going out of their way.

Buck announced the new “Preventing and Reporting Crimes Against Immigrants” program in 2012. “Many immigrants are reluctant to report crime due to immigration status, cultural differences or fear of retaliation from family members or authorities,” read a release.

Buck seemed dedicated to the idea.

“We have a responsibility to arm people in our community with the knowledge they need to protect themselves from crime, and to show people that they have nothing to fear by reporting crime to local law-enforcement,” he said.

The announcement of the program came in the wake of an investigative I-News report on the case of former Weld County undocumented resident Maria Gaspar.

In 2002, Gaspar came to Weld authorities to report on her boyfriend, also undocumented, who had been violently abusing her. She assisted in his prosecution. He was arrested, charged, found guilty and then deported to his native Guatemala. But speaking out also called attention to Gaspar’s undocumented status and she was deported a couple of years later, also to Guatemala. Her former boyfriend found her there, in 2009, and began abusing her again. Gaspar applied to Weld County for what is called a U visa, a four-year visa that allows the holder to apply for permanent residency after three years. The U visa program allows discretion on the part of authorities to grant visas to those who help solve crimes. Gaspar wrote in her application to Weld about how she had helped convict and deport her criminal boyfriend, that he had found her and was now abusing her again and that she had a child in Weld County who was growing up without her.

As I-News reported in 2012, it took only 24 hours for Weld County to reject Gaspar’s application.

“[Just] because you become a victim of a crime doesn’t mean you win the citizenship or green-card lottery,” Buck told I-News at the time.

Buck is now running for U.S. Senate. It is his second try. In the 2010 so-called Republican-wave year, Buck lost a very close election to Democrat Michael Bennet. In the last weeks of the race, Buck seemed to lose ground daily with women and minority voters. Democrats hammered him for orchestrating a high-profile 2008 immigration raid later found to be unconstitutional on a Weld County tax service that catered to Spanish-speaking clients and for declining to prosecute a 2005 sexual assault, playing audio of him seeming to blame the rape victim, talking about her merely experiencing “buyer’s remorse” when she reported the crime. In an attempt to head off similarly damaging narratives this time around, Buck has been courting women. He launched a “Ken Cares” campaign that features stump speeches and web videos where he addresses women’s issues and where women speak favorably on his behalf.

It’s no surprise, then, that Gaspar’s case has come back to color debate about Ken Buck’s views of women and domestic violence and about immigrant rights as well.

“His office was talking such a good game,” said Gonzales, referring to the launch of the Preventing and Reporting Crimes Against Immigrants program. She said, the announcement gave a lot of people working with immigrants hope but they were also skeptical. “Organizers and advocates and people who’ve worked on immigration in Greeley for years were like, ‘I’ll believe it when I see it,” said Gonzales. “You want to believe a DA wouldn’t let someone’s immigration status determine whether they can seek justice or not. So we we’re really hopeful.”

Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett pioneered the kind of program Weld county was touting. Between 2011 and 2013 Garnett’s office issued 147 U visa certifications to residents who came forward to report crimes.

“U visas are a huge help to law enforcement and are an integral part of our immigrant-protection program because they serve a vital role of assuring immigrant victims and witnesses that they can safely participate in the court process,” Garnett wrote in an email to The Independent.

“Weld county copied our program,” he added. “I don’t think it has been quite as successful as ours has.”

The program in Weld contributed to at least one prosecution last year when Samuel Sanchez-Brito was sentenced to 16 years for repeatedly assaulting a 13-year-old girl. In that case, the Weld County DA office signed off on a U visa certification for the girl’s mother.

Immigration lawyers agree that more certifications are coming out of Weld, but they also say unnecessary structural hurdles slow progress. U visa recommendations typically can be approved by a variety of law enforcement agencies, they point out, but in Weld County, Buck’s office seems to reserve the right to make those determinations.

“There appears to be an outright agreement that any and all U visa requests will only go through the DA’s office,” said Christen Swensen, an immigration lawyer who is head of the U visa working group. “Despite Congress’s intent to provide as many avenues as possible, [Weld] has essentially cut out a third of the opportunities by removing all local law enforcement from the equation.”

The Weld County DA’s office said Ken Buck wasn’t available to comment on its immigrant reporting program and U visas policies. Administrators asked the The Independent to file a records requests on the number of U visa certifications submitted and approved over the last two years.