Domestic Violence Victims Silenced by SB 1070

Domestic Violence Victims Silenced by SB 1070

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PHOENIX, Ariz. – Is it better to risk deportation by calling the police or just endure the abuse? That question haunted Lourdes, whose name has been changed for her protection, for months. And the threat become real when her ex-husband, a U.S. citizen, started mentioning a proposed Arizona law, SB 1070, that could make undocumented women like her subject to arrest for being in the country illegally.

When she arrived almost eight months pregnant at the De Colores domestic violence shelter here, it took some convincing to get her to call the police to report the abuse. But she did it anyway.

“Women tend to be more secluded than they would be in the past because of the fear of SB 1070,” said Edmundo Hidalgo, executive director of Chicanos por la Causa (CPLC), a nonprofit that runs the shelter. “The bill itself is creating a wedge between this community and police officers.”

Today in Phoenix, U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton will hear arguments against SB 1070 raised by CPLC and police officers themselves.

Hidalgo decided to join the lawsuit with Officer David Salgado because he is concerned that the law would make other domestic violence victims afraid to come forward. He is also worried that the law could affect children in schools, including the three charter schools CPLC runs, where onsite police officers could inquire about students’ immigration status in connection with a crime.

The lawsuit alleges that SB 1070 is pre-empted by the federal government. It also argues that the law conflicts with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Plyler v. Doe, which states that schools cannot deny education to K-12 students regardless of their immigration status.

The state of Arizona has argued that such claims are speculative.

But the implications of the new law for women like Lourdes are quite real, Hidalgo said.

During the first month after Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB 1070 into law, the shelter had empty beds for the first time in years, said Maribel Castro, executive director of De Colores.

“It has always been a challenge, but now more than ever,” she said. “We’re being limited in the way we can help [clients].”

It isn’t clear, for example, whether shelter employees could be fined for driving an undocumented woman to court to get a restraining order against her abuser.

“We could be charged for transporting someone without documents,” Castro said.

SB 1070 provides some exceptions for first responders and social workers transporting children for Child Protective Services, and stipulates that the person transporting an undocumented immigrant needs to be committing a criminal offense to be charged. Still, Castro worries about how the law would be enforced.

“How can we protect women if at the same time they criminalize us?” she wondered.

Lourdes, 27, is in the process of obtaining a special visa under the federal Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (VAWA), which allows domestic violence victims who have been married to a U.S. citizen or legal resident to self-petition to obtain legal status. To start that process, however, they must file a police report and get certification from law enforcement.

Lourdes could wait up to 18 months to be granted a visa. In the meantime she has no ID or document that proves she is in the U.S. legally, other than a letter that states that her application has been accepted.

“If she is applying for VAWA but the police arrest her, where is the protection for this woman? There’s a contradiction then, between the local law and what the federal government says,” said Castro.

The idea behind VAWA and similar federal laws is to provide a “shield of protection” from deportation when victims come forward to talk to the police, according to Kavitah Sreeharsha, attorney for Legal Momentum, a legal defense and education fund based in New York that focuses on women rights.

In an amicus, or friend of the court, brief supporting one of the lawsuits, Legal Momentum raised concerns about SB 1070’s impact on immigrant women’s ability to report crimes to the police.

“SB 1070 is just another way for abusers to be able to use their victims’ lack of immigration status as a tool to perpetuate the abuse or control,” Sreeharsha said.

Chicanos por la Causa and Legal Momentum are not alone in their claims. The lawsuit filed July 6 by the U.S. Department of Justice raises similar questions.

The federal lawsuit reads, “During the pendency of the application process, an alien may not have evidence of registration even though the federal government is aware of the alien’s presence, has decided against removing the alien, and certainly has no interest in prosecuting the alien crime.”

But under SB 1070, immigrants whose applications are in process could still be arrested since they have not received their legal documents.

“SB 1070 thus seeks to criminalize aliens whose presence is known and accepted by the federal government (at least during the pendency of their status review) and thereby conflicts with and otherwise stands as an obstacle to the full purposes and objectives of Congress in providing certain forms of humanitarian relief,” according to the federal lawsuit.

The fear experienced by immigrant women is not unfounded, Sreeharsha said.

“SB 1070 only impacts people that are arrested,” said Lyle Mann, executive director of the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, or AzPOST. “What an officer does with victims that are not arrested is completely open to the discretion of the officer.”

“If an officer chooses to walk up to an individual and have a consensual conversation, can an officer ask them anything? The truth of the matter is that legally he can,” Mann said.

By executive order of the governor, AzPOST created a voluntary training video on SB 1070 for police officers across the state.

While the video mentions the protections offered to victims of trafficking and domestic violence, it doesn’t go into detail about people who are in the process of applying for those visas.

Mark Spencer of the police union Phoenix Law Enforcement Association (PLEA) argues that SB 1070 actually provides broader protection for victims and witnesses of a crime by leaving it up to police officers to question their status at their discretion.

According to Spencer, that means it would be up to the officer to question them for as long as he thinks that would not hinder or obstruct an investigation.

“Most officers will know that they don’t have to let that get in the way of providing justice (for victims),” he said.

Hidalgo, executive director of CPLC, says that in the past, police officers have been very helpful in protecting victims. But he believes they are now finding themselves between a rock and a hard place. This is because SB 1070 allows Arizonans to file suit against any police department they believe is not enforcing the new law correctly. A department found to be out of compliance could be fined up to $5,000 per day.

“This is not a challenge between CPLC, the Latino community and police officers,” Hidalgo said. “We don’t believe that police officers are to be faulted for what’s going on in the community. We believe it’s really the individuals that supported 1070,” he added.