For undocumented immigrants, reporting a crime – as a victim or witness – can be nerve-wracking.

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With more than 100,000 people deported under the federal Secure Communities program, including nonviolent offenders, it’s no wonder people don’t want to come forward.

Some of the residents who showed up at one of our News Literacy workshops brought up the issue as a community concern in the South Bay.

There are laws and policies in place to protect the undocumented from retribution or deportation. But getting that information out to the community can prove difficult — so can building the trust it takes for people to come forward.

Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law the Trust Act to combat misuse of the Secure Communities policy, which has led to the deportation of nonviolent or low-level offenders, as well as victims and witnesses. The law prohibits local law enforcement from holding individuals for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) unless they’re felons.

Meanwhile, local law enforcement agencies have their own policies to build community trust in the hopes crimes won’t go unreported.

Homayra Yusufi-Marin, a policy advocate for ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, said police departments in San Diego, Chula Vista and National City all discourage making calls to ICE if they suspect someone is undocumented.

It’s not against the law for officers to call in ICE, but it’s highly unlikely they will, said Yusufi-Marin. As long as a person doesn’t have a criminal record, they shouldn’t be worried about deportation after interacting with law enforcement. Lt. Don Redmond of the Chula Vista Police Department said victims or witnesses who want to stay anonymous can report crimes online or by phone.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez took up the cause at a town hall in Chula Vista on Saturday.

Fraud and other scams are especially common in immigrant communities. “It’s a very vulnerable population desperate to get their papers fixed,” she said. “There’s bad actors who take advantage of that community.”

People who call themselves “notarios” claim in advertising to have the authority to stamp or process immigration papers, then leave hopeful immigrants hundreds or thousands of dollars in the hole. Notario means lawyer in some Latin countries, but in America, a notary is just a person with the power to certify certain documents.

Brown signed a bill written by Gonzalez that prevents the use of the word “notario” in advertising services by anyone who isn’t an attorney, and offers other protections.

“They need to know someone who’s gone through the experience,” Gonzalez said. “You realize just how important it is to be in the U.S. They give up a lot. They think it’s like penance, which is why they don’t come forward with crimes.”

Victims of violent crimes can apply for a special U-visa, which grants protection while they cooperate with police during the investigation or prosecution of a crime.

Another option is the T-visa, for victims of human trafficking. Both visas were created with the passage of the federal Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act.

Yusufi-Marin said for victims to qualify for the visas, they must have reported or documented the crimes for law enforcement.

Attorney Evelyn Lopez with Casa Cornelia Law Center said that since Congress introduced the special visas in 2000, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has been flooded with more requests than it can process. The department set a cap of 10,000 U-visas every year. T-visas, which are more difficult to qualify for, are capped at 5,000. Despite the uptick in applications, Redmond said unreported crimes are still a major concern for law enforcement across the board.

Lopez said it’s in the best interest for immigrants – regardless of legal status – to come forward to report crimes.

“The police are not immigration,” Lopez said. “They don’t have the power to deport you. Reporting crimes helps law enforcement. You’re not supposed to be afraid.”

Bianca Bruno is Voice of San Diego's News Literacy program manager. She works with Chula Vista residents, promoting equal access to news through civic...

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