Swept Up in the Crackdown: Immigration Enforcement and Gender-Based Violence

By Victoria Piehowski | June 27, 2017

A new wave of “tough on crime” policy is taking shape in the U.S., driven by a presidential administration that tirelessly stirs fears of internal and external threats. The full consequences of this new crackdown will not be known for some time. But decades of research on the effects of aggressive law enforcement provide a strong basis for understanding the challenges that lie ahead. In political rhetoric, the law-breaking individual takes center stage. Calls for stiffer penalties focus on actions within the criminal justice system. In reality, however, the fallout from get-tough law enforcement spirals outward, reaching into all corners of targeted individuals’ lives and creating devastating collateral consequences for the people who surround them. In the case of undocumented immigrant victims of gender-based violence, aggressive law enforcement can counteract vital protections and supports.

Past pushes for “tough on crime” reform have already greatly undermined governmental support for individuals who have experienced criminal justice contact.

Consider how criminal justice growth has diminished the scope of the welfare state.

Under a variety of federal and state laws, for example, felony drug convictions can bar individuals from receiving critical forms of public assistance and justify evictions by government housing authorities. Such formal exclusions tend to be based on individuals’ prior run-ins with the law. But in an era of increasing collaboration between welfare and criminal justice systems, the erosion of social protections is just as likely to be based on forward-looking fears: all too often, the act of seeking help can initiate a disastrous process of criminal prosecution. For undocumented immigrant victims, seeking assistance from courts or police can mean exposure to increasingly pervasive immigration enforcement. An undocumented woman seeking a restraining order from an abusive husband may instead find herself in deportation proceedings.

These developments provide crucial background for understanding the intersectional politics of President Trump’s ongoing efforts to yoke immigration to the specter of criminality.

From the outset of his campaign, candidate Trump sought to demonize Mexican immigrants in criminal terms: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” In rhetoric and policy, a similar equation of the foreign other and criminal threat has animated the Trump administration’s framing of Muslim immigration in terms of the War on Terror. The result has been a notable surge in nationalistic law enforcement and in the criminalization of immigrants. In May 2017, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that it had arrested 41,000 people in the first 100 days of the Trump presidency – a nearly 40% increase over the prior year. High-profile raids across the country have put communities of immigrants in fear.

For women who experience domestic violence, the aggressive ICE campaign has worked along two tracks to weaken state protections and increase risk.

Along one track, fears generated by aggressive immigration enforcement undermine the protections extended by the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (VAWA). The prospect of drawing attention from ICE officials can be terrifying enough to deter even the most desperate claims for protection. And the fears are far from unfounded. In February of this year, ICE authorities detained a woman at an El Paso courthouse immediately after she obtained an order of protection against an abusive ex-boyfriend. In other instances, prosecutors in Texas and Colorado have had to drop domestic violence cases because undocumented witnesses were fearful of appearing in court.

Along a second track, more aggressive immigration enforcement threatens to endanger domestic violence victims through exposure of private information. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), for example, has created a public online database called the Victim Information Notification Exchange (VINE), which promises to “help victims track the immigration custody status of illegal alien perpetrators of crime.” In their zeal to track “aliens,” however, database managers have exposed the identities and locations of undocumented immigrants who are themselves victims of domestic violence. Protection of identifying information can be vital to the safety of those who have escaped abusive partners. Yet in the name of law enforcement, VINE publicizes information about where individuals are being detained and when they will be released. In the process, it supplies abusers with reliable, up-to-date information about their victims’ whereabouts.

To demonstrate the risk, attorneys have used VINE to locate individuals who have filed VAWA self-petitions or applied for a special class of protected immigration processing through a U or T visa.

These application procedures were made available to undocumented victims of crime and trafficking precisely to shield them from deportation proceeding that might place them at further risk. Thus, as it exposes victims’ whereabouts, VINE operates in a way that undercuts federal protections for crime victims. VAWA and the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 specifically protect U, T, and VAWA applicants from such violations of confidentiality. When the latter Act was passed, it represented a breakthrough victory in addressing the ways immigration laws can effectively trap undocumented women in abusive and exploitative relationships. Today, though the Act remains on the books, an aggressive, criminalized approach to immigration is destabilizing and watering down its protections.

Not surprisingly, undocumented victims have never had an easy or simple relationship to the police.

In a 2000 survey conducted in the Washington D.C. area, 22% of battered immigrant women named fear of immigration authorities as their primary reason for staying with an abusive partner. Subsequent studies have supported this finding: ethnographic research conducted in Phoenix, Arizona revealed widespread fears among domestic violence victims that contacting the police would lead to their own arrest or deportation. Likewise, in a 2014 focus group study of undocumented Latina immigrants, the majority of participants reported that their immigration status held them back from reporting domestic violence.

Such findings underscore the vital role played by policies that visibly secure the safety of undocumented individuals who report crimes, including domestic violence. Indeed, as the Trump administration’s high-profile immigration agenda has run roughshod over these safeguards, advocates and law enforcement have begun to raise alarms about striking drop-offs in crime reporting. In March 2017, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck announced that sexual assault reports from Latinx residents were down 25 percent from one year earlier, with domestic violence reports down by 10 percent. Beck noted that similar declines had not occurred among other ethnic groups. Houston Chief of Police Art Acevedo reported even greater declines in Latinx reports of sexual assault, 40 percent less overall than last year. Corroborating these reports, similar chilling effects have been observed in other arenas of government assistance. For example, organizations that help families obtain SNAP nutritional benefits report substantial recent drops in the number of immigrant families seeking assistance – and even, in some cases, immigrant parents actively seeking to cancel their food stamps out of fear of deportation.

Government protections tethered to the threat of deportation are not, in the end, really protections at all.

Public policies and institutions rarely work in isolation. Shifts in one inevitably reverberate through others. For this reason, “tough on crime” policy is never just tough on crime. It also imposes serious risks and hardships on victims of crime in need of state protection. As immigration authorities spread out across governmental systems in search of “illegal aliens,” they sow powerful, well-grounded fears that unravel protections for undocumented victims of domestic and sexual violence.