Her case is the most well known, but activists say all programs that mix police work with immigration enforcement represent a growing threat to immigrant women who are victims of domestic violence.
“The Department of National Security hasn’t been very effective in identifying victims of domestic violence, even those who have already gotten benefits, such as suspension of deportation under the law VAWA (Violence Against Women Act),” Leslye Orloff, director of the immigrant women’s program at Legal Momentum, said recently before Congress.
With the expansion of the Secure Communities program, which is now operating in every county in California, along with 1,000 counties across the country, that danger is even greater, Orloff said.
Undocumented immigrants who have been victims of domestic violence can apply for residency without a sponsor, through the U Visa and T Visa programs. These are laws that benefit survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking, among other violent crimes.
But when a domestic violence victim calls the police to report a violent incident, police often arrest both the victim and the perpetrator, especially if the couple doesn’t speak English and there is confusion about what happened.
Activists in defense of immigrant women say this shows how dangerous these programs are for public safety, especially in immigrant communities.
"Our poor neighborhoods are full of immigrants; they don’t have the level of police protection. There is simply nothing more critical than the trust between the immigrant and the authorities," said Enid Gonzalez, a member of the legal team at Casa de Maryland, the first organization to help Bolaños. Gonzalez said cases like this make communities think that they shouldn’t call the police for help.
The Secure Communities program matches the fingerprints of all arrestees against a federal immigration database to determine whether they have outstanding deportation orders or are in the country illegally. If someone is arrested and booked, even if the charges are later dropped, his or her fingerprints will end up in these databases and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will be notified. ICE maintains that it is focused on arresting dangerous criminals and prioritizing the most serious crimes over minor offenses. However, it doesn’t always happen this way. A recent analysis of ICE's own data showed that at least 28 percent of those processed under the program were not guilty of any crime; they were simply undocumented immigrants.
ICE recently released 15,000 documents and internal memos about its management of the program following a legal battle led by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, according to the organization’s director, Pablo Alvarado.
“They haven’t told the truth with respect to this program,” he said.
The case of women who have been victims of domestic violence is unique, not only because they have the right to immigration benefits – although many times they don’t know this – but also because the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has tried to implement measures to identify these women, although the program is so wide-reaching that this has been difficult.
At the urging of activists, DHS created a list with thousands of names of women who have received domestic violence benefits or are applying for them and have been approved.
"ICE isn’t supposed to touch these women, but with programs like 287(g) or Secure Communities, this list doesn’t seem to have much effect," said Orloff.
"What we ask is that ICE is committed to ensuring that the person arrested is not the victim. Otherwise, this kind of program becomes very dangerous."
In any case, the effect is to create more fear among women of the police than of the abusers themselves, said Judy London, an attorney with Public Counsel in Los Angeles.
"Ultimately, what concerns us most is not that there are many cases of this, but that it creates fear in the community ... this has definitely damaged the trust between police and the community," said London.
In fact, as a result of cases like that of María Bolaños, some organizations that help battered women are recommending that they don’t call the police, and instead try to call someone else first.
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