While campaigning, Donald Trump claimed he wanted to target undocumented immigrants to increase safety and support victims of crimes. His administration, however, has eliminated an essential support option for survivors of some of the gravest crimes.
Intimate partner violence is an epidemic in the United States. Every minute, nearly twenty people are abused by an intimate partner – amounting to more than ten million people every year. Additionally, one out of every three women and one out of every four men experience some type of intimate partner violence in their lifetime. Even in the general population, this issue is severely underreported, likely due to survivors’ fear of retaliation and economic dependence on abusers. However, this type of violence is particularly endemic among undocumented people in the United States, as their abusers often threaten to report their immigration status if they turn to the authorities.
In 2000, Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act. This legislation created the “U Visa,” which allows undocumented survivors of violent crimes to apply for legal status in exchange for serving as witnesses against the perpetrators. The program provides refuge and a course of action for those who might otherwise fear deportation when reporting their abusers.
This legislation has been a crucial part of protecting survivors of traumatic assaults. Each year the government issues up to ten thousand visas for victims of crimes. A study in 2011 found that the vast majority of U visas given out went to survivors of sexual or physical abuse. This has tremendously helped law enforcement better serve survivors, as it allows them to more effectively investigate and prosecute rapists, human traffickers, and more.
Unfortunately, President Trump’s January 25th executive order on “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements” reduces the effectiveness of the U Visa program. In his expansive list of new targets and enforcement mechanisms, Trump details that “It is the policy of the executive branch to empower State and local law enforcement agencies across the country to perform the functions of an immigration officer.” After listing who can be arrested, he concludes that it is “In the judgment of an immigration officer” to determine who to target. Widening police power to serve as immigration officials and giving them the ability to target any undocumented person is immensely troubling. As a result, it is extremely unlikely that undocumented survivors will feel comfortable cooperating with law enforcement agents – who now have the authority of unchecked immigration officers. As an integral part of receiving a U Visa is working with law enforcement as a witness, their new role as immigration officers erodes both trust and the likelihood that immigrants will take a chance working with them. Our society cannot risk reducing the effectiveness of this essential program.
Some cities, commonly referred to as sanctuary cities, have said their law enforcement will not adhere to the president’s executive order. However, Trump has recently targeted these cities more vigorously. The acting director of ICE, Thomas Homan, reported in an interview with the Washington Examiner that he has been approved to hire ten thousand new agents to send to sanctuary cities. Surges in arrests have already occurred in notable sanctuary cities such as Los Angeles. During five days in Southern California, ICE reported 161 arrests, what the field director David Marin called an “enforcement surge.” Trump’s targeting of these cities means it is unlikely that their law enforcement will be able to avoid cooperating with ICE; if they choose to do so, ICE’s presence will increase and fill the void. This will only further reduce the likelihood that survivors will work with law enforcement as witnesses – meaning they cannot receive U Visas. Reducing reports of abuse, thereby keeping survivors in the shadows and attackers out of jail, will seriously threaten community safety.
Alarmingly, reporting rates of sexual assault amongst Latinos in two sanctuary cities have already begun dropping. Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck estimates that compared to the previous year, reports of intimate partner violence have declined 10 percent and reports of rape have decreased by 25 percent amongst Latinos in Los Angeles. Similarly, Police Chief Art Acevedo of Houston estimates that from the previous year, Latinos’ reports of violent crimes have reduced by 13 percent and rape reports have dropped by 42 percent. In an email response, Denver County and City Attorney Kristin Bronson said, regarding the nine women who have dropped domestic violence cases due to fears of deportation, “Our concern is that ICE’s tactics are many times confused with that of local law enforcement, which undermines the trust relationship between the community and police. We want the community to report and bear witness to crimes in our city, but we can only do that if the community trusts that the police are only there to protect them, not to deport them.” In El Paso, also a sanctuary city, the amount of requests for protective orders has reduced by 12 percent after a woman who was in court requesting a protective order was arrested by ICE outside the courthouse. While there is no definitive evidence that the reductions in these reports or requests can be causally linked to the increased ICE presence in these cities, there is a strong temporal correlation.
Amongst the reductions in reports and increase in arrests, it is alarming that undocumented survivors of abuse can no longer feel safe consulting law enforcement. The U Visa Program is essential to keeping communities safe, ensuring efficient investigation and prosecution. Instilling fear in those who would benefit from this program with an executive order sets a dangerous precedent. Expanding the role of cops to that of immigration agents is pernicious for our communities and democracy.