Recent congressional proposals ostensibly designed to curb terrorism would have a devastating impact on abused immigrant women and victims of human trafficking. Among the several bills pending that would significantly reduce due process rights for immigrants, two are particularly threatening to battered immigrant women. The "Clear Law Enforcement for Criminal Alien Removal Act" (CLEAR; H.R. 2671) and the "Homeland Security Enhancement Act" (HSEA; S. 1906) would essentially deputize state and local police to enforce federal civil immigration law. This would have a profound chilling effect on the willingness and ability of immigrant crime victims and witnesses to turn to the police for assistance. Such measures would have a particular impact on immigrant women who are victims of abuse.
Battered immigrant women face special problems when they try to escape abuse. They may be isolated because of language or cultural barriers, and most lack information about their legal rights. They fear that they, rather than their abuser, will be punished if they contact the police, and that they will face detention or deportation. Many also fear that they will have their children taken away from them. If CLEAR or HSEA were to become law, these fears would be given real and devastating force.
Human traffickers use similar intimidation tactics to keep their victims from contacting the authorities and would benefit from these proposals. They rely on the mistrust and fear their victims have of oppressive, corrupt, or unresponsive police in their home countries to ensure that crimes go unreported. Thus, though nearly 18,000 people may be trafficked into the U.S. each year, only about 450 victims were certified and 110 traffickers charged in a three-year period. Considerable law enforcement resources have been dedicated to overcoming the barriers victims face in reporting crimes and securing convictions against traffickers. If CLEAR or HSEA passes, these efforts would be seriously undermined.
Empowering local police to enforce civil immigration laws is like having your neighborhood police officer enforce civil tax laws and arrest you for filing the wrong tax return or not itemizing your deductions properly. Immigration laws are more complex than the tax code and their interpretation requires considerable expertise. For that reason, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) maintains a specialized unit to process and adjudicate all applications from immigrant crime victims under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (VTVPA) – two federal laws designed to protect immigrant women from abuse. If CLEAR or HSEA passes, local law enforcement officials, untrained in the intricacies of immigration law, will make irreparable, even life-threatening mistakes, and battered immigrants and other crime victims will fail to benefit from the protections Congress meant for them.
The primary concern addressed by lawmakers through the passage of VAWA and VTVPA is that if immigrant crime victims cannot call the police for help, perpetrators of crimes against immigrant victims go free, endangering not only immigrant victims and their children, but also everyone in our communities.
CLEAR, HSEA, and related proposals would eviscerate the public policy interests of VAWA and VTVPA and erase hard-won gains by law enforcement in securing the trust of immigrant communities. Law enforcement’s focus would revert from protecting victims to inquiring about the victim’s immigration status, and drive immigrant victims once more into the shadows and into danger.
To learn more about other anti-immigrant legislative initiatives that threaten to place immigrant victims of domestic violence, trafficking, and other violent crimes at greater risk, please visit the websites of the Tahirih Justice Center (www.tahirih.org) or the National Immigration Forum (www.immigrationforum.org).
Layli Miller-Muro is the executive director and Jeanne Smoot is the public policy counsel at the Tahirih Justice Center, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that provides pro bono legal services and engages in public policy advocacy on behalf of women and girls fleeing human rights abuses to the United States.