Major Jamie Thomas

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Major Jamie Thomas is a member of the Sanford Police Department. Specifically, he is in charge of the U-Visa applications that this police department receives. The U visa is a United States visa for victims of crimes (and their immediate family members) who have suffered substantial mental or physical abuse and are willing to assist law enforcement and government officials in the investigation or prosecution of the criminal activity. Additionally, Major Thomas actively participated in the Sanford Building Integrated Communities program from 2013-2017, a UNC Latino Migration Project initiative dedicated to improving local government communication, leadership, and services with Latino communities. As part of this process, Major Thomas built networks and relationships with non-profit organizations, churches and other local immigrant leaders. Throughout this interview, Major Thomas describes his specific role in the U-Visa application revision process and describes how the police department works closely with local organizations to support victims. Additionally, he discusses the ways that members of the Latinx community most likely learn about the U-Visa application process as well as improvements that the Police Department can make to spread awareness about the availability of these resources in the community.



Rebecca Heine: Hi this is Rebecca Heine here in Sanford interviewing Major Thomas. Major Thomas, do I have your consent to conduct this interview today?
Major Jamie Thomas: Yes.
RH: [00:00:16] Alright, so let’s start out with you taking me through the process of how you obtain a U-Visa and explaining your role in that process.
JT: Typically, I receive them from attorneys or a church that may be trying to help someone and when I get them from attorneys they’re all filled out completely. I just research it to ensure that we were the investigating agency, make sure it meets the criteria that that is the victim of course in the case and that they were helpful in the case before I’ll sign it. I think that most of the time when attorneys assist somebody with one, they’ve got pretty much all the legwork done, it’s just my part to research a little bit.
RH: [00:01:25] When you’re talking about the criteria for something to research and for something to be deemed as eligible for a U-Visa, did a certain type of criminal offence have to be committed against that person?
JT: Yeah, mostly it has to be some sort of assault or bodily injury, or threat, or a weapon may be involved, or typically domestic related or worse. It’s not for misdemeanor larcenies and things like that. Say, they stole their cell phone or something. It would have to be an aggressive action towards the victim.
RH: [00:02:17] So do you know if this is advertised in any way to the Latinx community in Sanford, or how do you think they would hear about this? Do you think that it’s known in the community-
JT: -I think some of the groups that help the Hispanic communities know about it and talk about it. The local Catholic Church, the Reverend there and the one of the Deacons work with them constantly. They’ll call me or email me and pose some questions for someone that they think may make the criteria or so. They’ve helped a lot of people here locally. Now I can’t speak for outside of Sanford of course, but there’s more than one church that has group settings for the Hispanic community and population and they give them all sorts of information and that’s just part of it.
RH: So once you get these requests, do you have to communicate with the person who is attempting to acquire the U-Visa themselves, or no?
JT: I have. I’ve had some bring them themselves.
RH: Oh.
JT: Up here. And I’ll talk to them then and if there’s a language barrier we have several officers that are bilingual so.
RH: How much is this process used? Like how many cases do you get on average a week or a month?
JT: I would say lately it’s been about three to five a month.
RH: [00:04:35 ] And do you think that this is a process that’s used as much as it should be or do you think that if the community was more aware of the fact that they could use this, then it would be implemented more.
JT: Yeah, I don’t think that it’s utilized as it should be or could be. Still with some there’s that threat of reporting anything to law enforcement so I’m sure that there’s victims out there that are victims of serious crimes that never reported anything to us. To the police or Sheriffs or anybody. And so without the report of course, the U-Visa does no good and it’s just to try to build a relationship to know that they can trust us. We’re not here to deport them. That’s not our goal, that’s not our job. If they come to us for help we’re going to help them. But there’s still. In the community I know there’s still that threat that they feel you know when they see- or they don’t want to report things to law enforcement. And it may be just because they may not have a valid I.D. or something. You know it’s just little things, but they’re still afraid to report them.
RH: Are there cases in which you’re technically obligated to report someone based off their immigration status if you find out about it or not necessarily?
JT: Not necessarily. We’ve had situations where people show up at the hospital that have been really injured by someone and they just refuse to talk to us. And we can’t make them. They just say I fell down or whatever happened and we would know that wasn’t the fact, but we can’t make them report it. We can ask, and we can even reassure them that look no matter what you tell us or what your name is, we’re not going to research you, we’re just going to try to help you. But it doesn’t work all the time.
RH: So, if for example, you have proof or someone directly tells you that they don’t have the correct papers to be in the country, you’re not obligated to do anything about it? No?
JT: No.
RH: But is there a like countywide policy on how to handle cases like that?
JT: Well, no not really. Like I say that’s not our main job. If there’s a nationwide want on that person- of course we’ve got to detain them until whatever is done is done. But just because someone doesn’t have the proper paperwork, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re here illegally. Without them committing some sort of serious crime, that’s not our job.
RH: [00:08:08 ] So, do you have any ideas- so you said that you think that this is a process that could be utilized more if I guess people are more educated about it-
JT: Absolutely. And I think the biggest thing that I’ve seen. You know these forms are online. And I have not read anywhere that it has to be an attorney or some sort of professional place that has to complete these forms. With access yourself you can complete it. Now, I’m not sure how much assistance you can get on your own trying to move forward and submit all the paperwork and knowing how to handle everything, but I think that with attorneys involved, I think it gets too costly for some. I have some people that I speak with regularly, local that are business owners within the Hispanic Community and they’ll come to me from time to time with someone to see if they qualify. And I’ll tell them all the same thing. I don’t want to take money out of anybody’s pocket, but if some person can’t afford whatever the fee is, and I’ve heard few say that they’re just way out of range for somebody to afford that’s a hard working local person they just can’t afford to hire an expensive attorney to get it done. Now, the Catholic Church, I’m sure they don’t charge a fee of course. They help a lot with individuals that just come to them if they know to go to them or where they could go that’s the biggest thing. I’ve had attorneys send me stuff from Florida. As far South as Florida to as far North as Maine. So, it could be coming from anywhere and I don’t know if the applicant just no longer lives here or still where the crime occurred or they’re hiring offline attorneys or something. I’m not sure what the details are there, but.
RH: So if the crime happened here and then they move away they would still have to get all the U-Visa paperwork done here?
JT: Yeah, well it doesn’t necessarily have to be the investigative agency that does it. Now, of course if they want the investigative agency to do it, it has to go to that agency that investigated the crime. It could go to the courthouse, the district attorney’s office, to judge, to what have you. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the law enforcement side of it. But what we always sign off on is that they were helpful in the investigation, that they gave the required information, assisted the law enforcement investigators, what have you, and identified suspects and all the way through to making an arrest or even prosecution.
RH: Do you know if the U-Visa forms- you said you can find them online.
JT: Absolutely
RH: Do you know if they’re also online in Spanish, or are they just online in English.
JT: Couldn’t tell you.
RH: Yeah you don’t know. Interesting. Because I feel like that could make a huge difference in accessibility.
JT: I’m sure they probably are, but I’ve just never looked. I helped a lady that was abused fill hers out myself here in my office and she was trying to take care of herself because she had no money. She couldn’t afford it. She came here upset, asking for help, and she had the form. I don’t know where she got it. Didn’t ask. Didn’t care. But she just didn’t know what all needed to be filled out on it so I just pulled it up online. You can complete it online and it tells you everything to do right there.
RH: So, once you receive the forms from a lawyer, a church, or someone comes in and gives them to you, where do you have to send them off to?
JT: Right, I give them right back to that person.
RH: And then do you know where they have to send them to? No?
JT: I’m sure it’s some federal government place that handles that. So whatever their process is. So I just sign it, add some notes in if I feel like I need to, which most of the time I do. And mail it back to the attorneys or hand it off to the church here or even to the victim themselves.
RH: So then obviously there would be another stage of an approval process. Do you ever end up hearing back from people that you help like what the final result was?
JT: I have, I’ve gotten letters back from people showing their appreciation. There’s also follow-ups from time to time. If I signed one a couple years ago, it may have to be renewed and they’ll send one for a renewal or to re-sign. I’ve done that on a few occasions. So I mean it’s helpful, as long as it works for them that’s just my job.
RH: Do you know how long before it would have to be renewed or no?
JT: No, I don’t. Just whenever I get them in the mail, that’s it. Other than my part of it my knowledge of them is pretty limited.
RH: [00:14:45 ] So you said that it has to be usually domestic or worse in terms of pretty fairly violent cases. So what types do you most often see?
JT: Most are domestic-related. Felonious assaults is probably next. Armed robbery. Assault with deadly weapons, things like that. That’s mainly the ones. There’s a list on the application on the first page near the bottom that lists all the crimes that qualify. And then there’s a box for other of course, that you can write in if you feel the crime is serious enough but just not listed.
RH: So, do you know if this is a process that’s used in surrounding counties or I guess what’s the process- I mean obviously you had to have been trained or educated in this, so what’s the process of having this be an option in an area or county.
JT: Well I mean it’s a federal program, so it’s mandated by Obama I believe initially. And maybe even before Obama, but when I started doing it they just sent me a bunch of stuff to research. You know, to read over. And I had the Chief type up a letter, and sign it and send it back authorizing me to do it for this department. Now, how everybody else done it I don’t know.
RH: So was this police department required to have someone that could do it?
JT: Absolutely.
RH: Okay. So maybe if it’s like a federal-mandated thing, then that’s required for all police departments.
JT: I’d imagine all local government, countywide and state. So I’m sure there’s a representative somewhere in every department that takes care of them.
RH: Have you experienced any cases in which someone came forward and tried to apply for a U-Visa, and it wasn’t granted and they ended up getting in trouble with immigration? Have you had any situations like that?
JT: No. I have not signed some because to me it didn’t qualify, and then they may try it again six months later and I just usually refer them to somebody else because once I don’t sign it to start with I’m probably not going to sign it a second time. But those are really few. I mean it doesn’t really happen that many times. Most people that complete them qualify. This was one particular- I remember it was a guy and it was one of his family members that was involved in this situation and he was trying to get it based on he had some mental trauma from what happened to his cousin or whatever and that doesn’t meet the criteria right. So I couldn’t sign it. Plus, he was not involved in the investigation and I don’t even know who he was. He wasn’t listed on our investigation to start with so he couldn’t use it. So if he ever got one, he didn’t get it because I signed it. And it’s not a guarantee when I sign them that people still get their U-Visa.
RH: Yeah, I wonder what the rate is once you sign them. That’d be interesting to know.
JT: Yeah, it would, it would.
RH: So, when did you start doing the U- So you said you’ve been here twenty-seven years?
JT: I’ve been doing this about five years.
RH: So this has been about five years. And before was there just not really a system.
JT: Yeah, the person that had this job before me did it. So we just had to change names of who was doing it.
RH: So there always had to be someone in the department listed for the U-Visa.
JT: Since it’s been around, yeah. Since it’s been new.
RH: But you’ve only been doing it for five.
JT: Five. Yeah. April. April 2013.
RH: You have a good memory. So I guess if you could think of any other improvements that you- or ways- I don’t know, if you had any ideas about ways that the police department could reach out to people in the Latinx community and let them know about this process. Obviously the church has played a big role, but I’m just curious about if you had any ideas about ways that gap could be breached.
JT: Well, what I’ve suggest to- whenever there’s a special event of some sort within the Hispanic community, if it’s a- it’s called El Refugio here in town- they do special events at a church and they get a large group of Hispanics and the purpose is to try to educate them on city government, county government, social services, what have you. Just try to feed information. The local community college will be there. We’re always there. And we share information like that at those forums. The Catholic Church does one about twice a year and we try to be there to share information with people. And not just necessarily U-Visas, but what were here for. To try to build a relationship so they’ll trust us. That’s what we want. And we can tell more about it. You know, victims of crimes, especially domestic related. And plus Haven, in Lee county here, if we refer a victim of a domestic violence to Haven, Haven shares the information also about U-Visas.
RH: So those events you said are put on twice a year by the church?
JT: Yeah, the church does it. Well both churches. It’s the Jonesboro Methodist Church, and I’m not sure what El Refugio is I don’t speak Spanish, but I’m assuming it’s Refuge-
RH: Yep
JT: But they run like a school there. And they teach English as a second language. They do a lot with the churches for the Hispanic community here. And we just try our best to be involved. They have told us that some people won’t come because they see the police car or our mobile unit.
RH: Oh wow.
JT: Parked there. So they’re coming and they go “Oh no okay” and they leave. One time they wanted us to wear plain clothes and not bring a police car and I’m like ‘Hm, it don’t work like that.’ We will make them feel comfortable, if they just come.
RH: Are you not allowed to show up in plain clothes?
JT: Oh yeah we are, but it’s still not the purpose. Our purpose is to- you know we want to start when they’re kids to feel comfortable with a man or a lady in uniform. And to know that hey, because they’re wearing blue and they’ve got badges and they’ve got guns, they’re not here to hurt you or take you away, they’re here to help you in every way possible. And of course we’ve got to keep the law, and if somebody’s committing a crime, of course they’ve got to understand circumstances, but it’s much more than that. Policing has changed a lot in the last twenty-five years. And it’s not all about throwing people in jail and taking parents away from kids. We want to keep everybody together.
RH: So are there ways that the police department tries to interact with kids in schools and stuff?
JT: We do classes. Right now our community-policing unit is teaching classes within the local schools about drugs and alcohol. It used to be a DARE program, and it was probably a DARE program when you were in school somewhere. High school. Or middle school. That graduated you up. But DARE just kind of went away. It’s a thing of the past. So now they’re working with the ABC commission and they’ve come up with this new class about drugs and alcohol that we’re teaching them in schools which helps build a relationship. And our community police unit- they go everywhere. If there’s any kind of special event. We’re invited to Boys and Girls Club, YMCA. You know, I mean last night we just played basketball with them at the Boys and Girls Club. So that’s where we have to start to build that relationship to make them- to earn their trust. And I know it’s difficult for some people.
RH: So if you have events at El Refugio, do the Spanish-speaking people go?
JT: Oh yeah, we have to try to make sure someone is there for that. Of course they always have interpreters around. But it just makes people feel better if we have an officer there speaking Spanish.
RH: Is the officer that speaks Spanish- did they learn it in school, or speak it at home?
JT: We have some that are Hispanic officers, and we have some that just learned it. Probably started in school, but you’ve got to learn the lingo which of course is a little bit different.
RH: Um, I’m trying to see if we hit all my questions.
JT: I think I barely passed foreign language. I took Spanish, but that was so long ago.
RH: Wasn’t your thing?
JT: No.
RH: So do you think if the police officers went to an El Refugio event out of uniform, do you think that-
JT: I think that probably more people would show maybe if they didn’t see the police car or the mobile unit, but once they found out that there were police officers they probably still wouldn’t interact with them.
RH: You think?
JT: Yeah, they probably wouldn’t run away, but they just wouldn’t communicate with them.
RH: Yeah, because I’m wondering if it would make them feel more calm or almost more anxious because it might seem like they are undercover. So I don’t know. Yeah, I don’t know what I think about that. Interesting. Your perspective on that is interesting. Well I think those are pretty much all my questions, if there’s anything else you want to talk about we can or if there’s anything interesting or if you have any particular stories or anything about this process.
JT: No, that’s pretty much it. Like I said, if here locally, between the Catholic Church and the Methodist Church, they pipe information to these Hispanic Communities. That’s probably why we’ve had the number we’ve had of the U-Visas because most probably don’t have access to a computer, or may not be educated enough to use them. And they have to depend on their kids. I have a lot of kids come in with their parents. Their mothers or fathers. They have to communicate for them the details. But it’s just part of education I guess.
RH: Well thank you so much for letting me interview you for my project.
JT: No problem.

Transcribed by Rebecca Heine on April 16, 2018