Jordan Helton / MNS

Ms. A, who asked to remain anonymous, describes how her husband beat her and why she felt afraid to call the police as an undocumented immigrant.

New immigration law in Washington has anti-violence groups worried

by Jordan Helton
Mar 08, 2010

WASHINGTON-- A new immigration law implemented in Washington last week sparked much discussion between immigrant advocacy groups and law enforcement over fears that the new program could have serious repercussions in the immigrant community.  

Though the Secure Communities program is expected to help with the identification and removal of immigrants with criminal records, some advocates said it could instead lead to more dangerous communities.

First begun in March 2008, the program creates a technological link between Department of Homeland Security immigrant databases and local jails in 166 jurisdictions nationwide.  

The $200-million-a-year program works by running an arrested person’s fingerprints through to DHS to check immigration status upon arrival at the jail. There is also the usual route to FBI databases. If there is a “hit” in the DHS database, then a two-day detainer can be placed on the person until Immigration and Customs Enforcement picks up the arrestee.

But since the agreement for Washington to participate in the program was signed in December, domestic violence prevention groups in the area have banded together to raise concerns.

They have held meetings with the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and have written a letter to a D.C. council member addressing serious problems they see in the program.

“The Secure Communities Program represents an alarming departure from MPD’s historic policy of not engaging in immigration matters,” said Shawndell Dawson, communications director at the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, in an e-mail.  “Immigration status should not prevent anyone—including victims of domestic violence—from seeking police protection.”

Though a tenuous agreement to postpone the implementation of the program until further outreach into the immigrant community was thought to have been struck by some involved in the process, MPD decided to go forward with the program last week.  A spokesperson for MPD could not be reached for comment.

Major concerns for the immigrant community

The concerns revolve around the Secure Communities process of sending data to DHS before a person has been found guilty of any crime and the consequences that could result for immigrant survivors seeking help from the police.

Dawson said when domestic violence is reported, the victim and the abuser are often both arrested because of the chaos of the situation.

“This means that at times, officers arrest victims of domestic violence along with their abusers only to later release them without charge,” she said.  “Secure Communities will therefore result in undocumented victims of domestic violence being deported and being separated from their children in the process.”

But Richard Rocha, a Secure Communities spokesman, said every case is taken on its own merits and not every “hit” results in a detainer or deportation.

“Depending on the crime, there may be a detainer placed [on an individual] and depending on the outcome they may be released,” he said.

Secure Communities has issued 16,631 detainers as of Aug. 31, 2009.  Those detainers resulted from a total of 82,890 database matches from fingerprint submissions to DHS.  That number will skyrocket when it is expanded nationwide to 3,100 local jails by 2013.

Rocha said he hopes to work with community groups to reduce concerns about detainment issues.

“We’re trying to make sure community groups encourage any potential victims that it’s in your best interest to report crimes, so that those who are hurting you are taken into custody, if needed,” he said.

“It’s a reason why they don’t call the police.”

But fear of police is still a huge concern in the immigrant community, said Marielle Filholm, the domestic violence program director at Doorways for Women and Families in Virginia.  Last year, 42 percent of the shelter and resource center were non-English speakers.

She said many factors can keep immigrant domestic violence victims from reporting their treatment to law enforcement.  Language barriers, cultural and religious ideas about domestic violence and a woman’s possible dependence on her abuser can create a sense of isolation where possible routes of escape seem threatening.

Information about ICE initiatives to work with local police, like the Secure Communities program, will only perpetuate the fear of reporting even more, she said.

In a 1997 study often cited by immigrant advocates, 83 percent of battered Latina immigrants in the Washington area did not report their treatment to law enforcement.  Many fear that percentage will rise even more when rumors of the program reaches immigrant communities.

“I can tell you that the survivors that call us-- it’s a reason why they don’t call the police,” Filholm said about Secure Communities.

Though she said survivors could also call because they want their batterer to face possible deportation, the majority are afraid of what will happen to themselves or someone they depend on once they seek help.

In an attempt to counterbalance the fear that is so pervasive in immigrant communities, local advocacy groups are trying to educate domestic violence victims of their options for protection.  

Mark Haufrect, attorney and legal director for Mil Mujeres, said he tries to teach the domestic violence survivors he sees about the different visas they can apply for after they contact the police.

The most common option, called the U-Visa, gives victims of certain crimes up to four years in the United States with a temporary legal status and work eligibility if the victim cooperates with law enforcement after the incident.  According to Haufrect, domestic violence victims are usually awarded the visa with little problem because of the “well-trained” immigration officers involved in the process.

“There may be a risk in calling the police to report a domestic violence incident, but at least that also would create eligibility for the U-Visa,” he said.  “There’s a risk of deportation, but on the flip side, there’s the ability to create eligibility.”

But even with options like the U-Visa, many are still afraid of the “chilling effect” that might be created by Secure Communities.

“The reality is that many people who are arrested and subject to this program may not be dangerous criminals,” said Dawson.  “They are victims of domestic violence who are wrongly arrested."