Crimes against Miramonte students may lead to immigration benefit

imageParents gathered last week to protest the school’s reopening with an entirely new staff.

With tears in his eyes Edgar, the father of a student at Miramonte Elementary says he wants to make sure his daughter is safe in the school. But he’s also afraid of speaking out. “I’m undocumented,” he whispers in Spanish. “I want to protect my daughter, but I have a lot to lose if they find out.”

The student body of Miramonte Elementary School is 98 percent Latino. How many students have undocumented parents is unclear. However, according to the school website, 56 percent of the students are English-language learners, and about one percent are considered “migrant” students.

As an undocumented immigrant, Edgar was hesitant about coming forward when he learned about the arrest of teachers Mark Berndt and Martin Springer, who have been charged with multiple counts of committing lewd acts against children at the school. But he attended a meeting at Miramonte last Thursday, where, in light of the sex abuse scandal involving the two teachers, parents were given the option of transferring their children to other LAUSD schools.

“I told them I didn’t trust them and that I would pull my daughter out of this school. Now a sheriff [deputy] is asking me for my name and information,” he says with fear.

imageMark Berndt, 61, was arrested in January on suspicion of committing lewd acts upon a child.

Another parent, Edward Ozuna, tries to calm Edgar down. “Brother, you have rights. You have to speak up. Just because you don’t have papers doesn’t mean you can’t report a crime. You have to, so it never happens again.”

Ozuna, a legal resident, has become a spokesman for many of the Miramonte parents who don’t have legal status in the country. “They’re afraid that if they speak or protest, they could get reported to immigration. And now, with the investigation, it’s worse, because the Sheriff department is doing it and they work with immigration,” he says.

Ozuna is referring to the Secure Communities program. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) program is designed to identify immigrants in U.S. jails who are deportable under immigration law. Agencies that participate in the program send fingerprints to criminal databases and give Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) access to information on the people they’re holding in jail.

The school is located in Florence-Firestone, an unincorporated area of South Los Angeles, under the jurisdiction of the L.A. Sheriff’s Department – and it participates in the Secure Communities program.

imageMartin Springer, another teacher at Miramonte, was arrested four days after Mark Berndt.

“We are not asking parents anything about their legal status,” affirms Lt. Carlos Marquez of the Sheriff’s Special Victims Bureau. “I met with all the parents that attended the parent town hall meetings and I told them in Spanish that they have nothing to fear, no matter what their immigration status. We are only seeking information that could help us in the investigation of this case.”

Marquez says they’ve received a “consistent stream of emails and phone calls from the beginning” from parents and former students and they’re following all leads.

“Parents should never be afraid to report a crime, whether they’re undocumented or documented,” says immigration attorney Nelson A. Castillo.

That may be easier said than done for some fearful parents. But cooperating with law enforcement could end up giving them an unexpected immigration benefit.

“The children were allegedly victims of sexual abuse, so that may make them eligible for a U Visa, which could grant them lawful status in the United States, if they are undocumented,” states Castillo. “If the children are U.S. citizens, their undocumented parents and unmarried siblings under the age of 18 may qualify for a U visa as indirect victims.”

That means that the whole family could be protected under the law.

What is a U Visa?

It’s a special visa granted to victims of a qualifying crime, who have suffered substantial physical or mental abuse. The crime must have occurred in the United States, in a U.S. territory, or violated U.S. law.

Among the types of crimes that qualify for a U visa: rape, torture, trafficking, incest, domestic violence, sexual assault, abusive sexual contact, prostitution, sexual exploitation, hostage situations, false imprisonment, involuntary servitude, slave trade, kidnapping, abduction, blackmail, extortion, manslaughter and murder.

The victim must cooperate with the law enforcement agencies in the investigation and/or prosecution of the perpetrators of the crime.

The prospect of gaining legal status could sound so appealing, it could prompt some parents to attempt to file claims that their children were victimized, even if they weren’t. But attorney Castillo strongly advises against it, saying the consequences could be dire.

“Filing any fraudulent immigration application may subject the parent to fines and jail if found guilty.” Even worse, he explains, it could pave the way for a case to be reviewed by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and to eventual deportation.

“Generally, all U visa applications are confidential. But, if USCIS determines that there has been fraud, they may refer the applicant or individual parent for investigation by immigration authorities.”

Lt. Marquez says they have no idea how many children have been victimized, but he recognizes that given the amount of years Berndt taught at the school, it’s highly likely there are many more than have currently been identified.

“We have received a lot of allegations where parents say we don’t have a picture, but it happened to my child. We’ve been interviewing those kids. Then we have to schedule interviews with that child and D.A.’s office. From there we have to determine whether we can add that child to the case. Depending on what the child tells us, we’ll know if we’re able to prove it in court,” states Marquez.

Last week, another 200 photos were discovered at the same photo lab where the first set was found in 2011. As of Monday morning, Marquez says they have determined 175 of photos of the second set contain children already identified.

“We just have 25 pictures we haven’t yet identified, but I’m not saying that we have 25 more victims,” explains Marquez.

Anyone with information on the Miramonte Elementary School’s sex-abuse allegations are urged to call the sheriff’s Special Victims Bureau at (877) 710-LASD; or Crime Stoppers, (800) 222-TIPS.