A recent report confirms what many undocumented immigrant women have likely suspected since Inauguration Day — it’s now even more dangerous to report domestic violence and sexual assault.
According to the report by the Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting immigrant victims of violent crimes, the names of undocumented victims now appear on a public national database through the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement program, or VOICE. A team of advocates and lawyers at Tahirih Justice Center who produced the report have asked for the names of victims to be taken down immediately, saying that making the information of victims public for their abusers to see threatens the safety of a population that should have protected status. Undocumented women who are victims of violent crimes and who are willing to collaborate with the state to convict their abusers have been granted protected status since the implementation of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). A select number are even granted citizenship status each year through a special U-Visa. The idea is that women who lack citizenship status are particularly vulnerable to abuse, given that they often face issues of social isolation, weakened family and community ties, language and cultural barriers, and fears of deportation. Though VAWA is a universal policy that applies to all American women, the U-Visa clause has, since its inception, held special significance for undocumented women seeking refuge from abusive relationships where they may otherwise suffer in silence.
In March, Los Angeles chief of police Charlie Beck made a shocking announcement that indicates a shift is taking place in how immigrant women victims of domestic violence perceive the state and their so-called protected status. In the press conference, Beck said that reports of sexual assault dropped by 25 percent and domestic violence by 10 percent. Only one month later, in Houston, chief of police Art Acevedo reported that the number of Latinos reporting rape is down 42.8 percent from last year, and other violent crimes by 13 percent. In both cases, the chiefs stressed that they attribute the dip in reporting to a growing distrust of local police.
While distrust from constituents is not new to urban police departments like the LAPD whose Rampart station has been at the center of controversy about their racist practices, the reasons for this growing distrust has been cause for concern for department heads like Beck. Whereas they may have a say in the direction of their local departments, it is much more difficult for them to redress the transgressions of federal police groups like ICE that are smearing their name. Local police throughout the country have been practically forced in recent months to collaborate with federal ICE agents to round up immigrants to maintain quotas set by the national agenda: approximately 400 arrests per day, at a spike of approximately 35-37 percent. Beck, a relatively progressive chief by national standards because of his support of sanctuary city measures to formally separate local and federal agents, has expressed concern that these developments are harming his department’s ability to continue its campaign of establishing legitimacy among skeptical communities of color.
Los Angeles’s and Houston’s police departments are unique compared to others in that they track data about the ethnicity of those filing reports. Nonetheless, these statistics are most likely indicative of a general trend. According to a recent Financial Times article, Latino shopping is down nationally, although Latinos have long been believed to be a driving engine of consumer growth. In the nonprofit sector, too, staff have noted declining number of people reaching out to receive services. One staff person said she believes that widespread fear is based on the mistaken idea that any organizations that immigrants give their personal information to may give it away to federal law enforcement.
The decline in Latinos seeking care at hospitals, too, is worrisome, especially considering that following the passage of Prop 187 in 1994, fear of deportation led to the deaths of two people — a teenage boy and an elderly woman who refused to go to the doctor for fear of deportation. To top it off, the number of Latinos in general who believe their situation is worse than it was a year ago is on a steep rise, according to a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center.
A Broader Context of Intensified Criminalization
It’s curious and truly concerning to see the ways in which the current administration has begun to disregard legislation like VAWA, which has had bipartisan support since the Clinton era. Like many decisions of the Trump administration, this approach is unorthodox to say the least. We can recall that Trump made headlines during his presidential campaign when he pronounced his intent to “build the wall” to keep out the “bad hombres,” a reference to his plans to erect a wall between Mexico and the US and to deport some of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States. Never mind that it has long been noted that the presence of immigrants actually makes communities safer. Trump has effectively mainstreamed views of extreme xenophobia and ushered in a moment of anti-immigrant hysteria unseen in modern times. Acting as if under a mandate (even though approximately half of eligible voters abstained from the November election), Trump has pursued extremely aggressive policies toward the detention and deportation of immigrants, as the spiking figures of arrests suggests.
Moreover, the deportation regime has grown not only in numbers but also in breadth and scope. Trump’s administration in recent months has expanded DHS databases of so-called “criminal aliens” or “alien offenders” begun under the Obama administration. It now notoriously includes several toddlers and babies. The administration is creating more so-called “bad hombres” by the day through policies that criminalize nonviolent behaviors in the service of deportation. And for many undocumented victims of domestic violence and assault, mostly women, Trump’s deportations and databases have made them far less safe than before.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is just one of a growing chorus of politicians echoing the sentiments of police chiefs like Beck and Acevedo that ICE and local police collaboration is fostering a deepening distrust. In his speech, Garcetti basically warned the public that police may begin to retaliate against demonstrators trying to prevent the arrests of community members. In March, the detention of a DACA-eligible California State University of Los Angeles student and long-time immigrant rights organizer, Claudia Rueda, catalyzed a series of rallies by local and statewide networks of organizers like the Democratic Socialists of America and the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance, to name a few.
The same month, a Connecticut woman was detained by ICE after she followed two officers to the police station because they identified themselves as local police. She only found out that they were not local police at all but ICE once the officers at the station asked them who they were and why they were wearing police badges. Believing she was asked to come down to the station to provide information about someone who’d committed an act of violence, she found herself criminalized by one department under the guise of another.
The federal government and ICE leadership are showing no signs of slowing down their aggressive assault on undocumented communities, but they have explicitly stated that they will make special considerations for victims and witnesses of crimes. ICE spokesperson Jennifer Elzea said, “When carrying out the immigration law enforcement mission … ICE officers will take into consideration if an individual is the immediate victim or witness to a crime in determining whether to take enforcement action.” So, the Trump administration has pitted federal protections for undocumented victims of violence against sanctuary cities.
It’s unclear how these contradictions will resolve themselves. Will survivors and anti-violence activists win their plea to the federal government to defend the federally protected status of undocumented victims of violence?
What is clear is that so far, the Trump administration has created a frenzy of distrust and outright confusion that appears to be the president’s approach to policy regarding Latina and Latino immigrants living in the US.
Whether it’s due to their immigration status, race, gender identity or language barriers, many women find themselves being punished by the police for reporting. For undocumented immigrant women at the intersections of competing law and order, we might talk about triple victimization or quadruple victimization. For example, if they are renters, DV victims are at risk of being evicted for calling the police after being labeled a “nuisance.” If a victim is trans, she may be deported back to an unsafe situation in her country of origin and then deadnamed by media. And because only a certain number of U-Visas are given out each year, the victim must be sympathetic and lack a criminal record herself — in other words, she must fit the mold of a “perfect victim.”
Is it any wonder that so many undocumented survivors of domestic violence and assault are hesitant to report?