June 05, 2017

Cortez Masto Urges DHS to Protect Domestic Violence Victims’ Access to Justice

Washington, D.C. – Last week, U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) and five other Senate Democrats sent a letter to the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Homeland Security—Senators John Boozman (R-Ark.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.), respectively—urging them to pressure the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to clarify its policies regarding immigrants who are victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking, and other crimes.

“Following the Administration’s executive orders on immigration and DHS’s February 20, 2017 implementation memo, numerous reports from police chiefs and prosecutors have recorded steep reductions in the reporting of domestic violence and sexual assaults,” the senators wrote in the letter. “Prosecutors report that victims of physical and violent assault have dropped their cases for fear that ICE will be at the courthouse and they will be deported.  Immigration enforcement actions that take place at schools, courthouses, hospitals, police stations, victim service agencies and other sensitive locations have a chilling effect on the reporting by victims and witnesses of crime, which reduces the overall community safety… Statistics and stories such as these underscore the chilling effect that unclear and misguided policies can have on the reporting of violent crimes.”

“For decades Congress has supported, in a bipartisan manner, access to safety and justice for immigrant victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and trafficking,” said Rosie Hidalgo, Director of Public Policy for Casa de Esperanza: National Latin@ Network. “It is critical that in this environment of increased fear and concerns expressed by immigrant survivors, that ICE take appropriate steps to minimize the chilling effect on victims and witnesses and that Congress continue to provide important monitoring and oversight. We applaud the efforts of Senator Cortez Masto and  other senators to strengthen Congressional oversight on these issues through the DHS appropriations process.”

“Since the January 2017 executive orders, an increased, widespread fear of deportation has spread like wildfire among immigrants,” said Archi Pyati, Chief of Policy and Programs, Tahirih Justice Center. “This has stopped survivors of domestic and sexual violence from calling 911 to report crime and cooperate with law enforcement, leaving them and their children without critical access to safety and justice. This in turn puts a powerful tool in the hands of perpetrators, who use victims’ lack of immigration status to intimidate and control them. We are grateful to Senator Cortez Masto and supporting members for their letter asking the Senate Homeland Security Subcommittee for unambiguous reassurance that victims can access emergency services without fear of deportation.”

“The Nevada Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence is concerned with how federal immigration efforts are threatening the ability for victims of domestic and sexual violence to seek help,” said Kristy Oriol, Policy Coordinator, Nevada Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence. “The chilling effect of the Administration's recent proposals are compounding threats used by abusers that keep immigrant victims in abusive situations. This compromises the safety of all Nevadans. Programs in Nevada continue to serve all victims of domestic and sexual violence, regardless of their immigration status, but we must not create a climate where these victims are fearful to access the services they need and deserve.”

The senators urge the Committee to include report language that directs ICE to:

1)      Issue an official statement directing ICE officers, special agents, and attorneys to exercise all appropriate prosecutorial discretion to minimize any effect that immigration enforcement may have on the willingness and ability of victims, witnesses, and plaintiffs to call the police and pursue justice;

2)      Ensure resources are used to provide officers, special agents, and attorneys with guidance and training regarding the use of prosecutorial discretion for victims of crime and witnesses of crime;

3)      Report steps taken to minimize the chilling effect immigration enforcement has on victims of crime; and

4)      Issue a public policy that affirms its commitment to avoiding enforcement actions in sensitive locations including but not limited to schools, courthouses, hospitals, victim service agencies, places of worship and report directly to this Committee any enforcement actions that take place at these locations within the next fiscal year.

The letter was also signed by Senators Bob Menéndez (D-N.J.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).

 

The text of the letter can be found below:

 

May 30, 2017

 

The Honorable John Boozman

Chairman

Subcommittee on Homeland Security

Senate Committee on Appropriations

Washington, DC 20510

 

The Honorable Jon Tester

Ranking Member

Subcommittee on Homeland Security

Senate Committee on Appropriations

Washington, DC 20510

Dear Chairman Boozman and Ranking Member Tester:

As your committee prepares to consider the Homeland Security Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 Appropriations, we urge you to ensure the resources of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) used to carry out immigration enforcement do not interfere with victims’ access to justice and the safety of victims and their children.

The U.S. Congress has long recognized that protecting victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking and other crimes is in keeping with the humanitarian interests of the United States. Congress has also acknowledged that abusers often use a victim’s immigration status as a tool of power and control. This understanding led to legal provisions in the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act designed to protect immigrant victims.

In the past, DHS has taken steps to train and inform their officers about the unique situation of immigrant victims. A 2011 Memorandum issued by the former Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director entitled “Prosecutorial Discretion: Certain Victims, Witnesses and Plaintiffs” (Victims and Witnesses Memo) states: “Absent special circumstances or aggravating factors, it is against ICE policy to initiate removal proceedings against an individual known to be the immediate victim or witness to a crime.”  In addition to victims of domestic violence, human trafficking and other serious crimes, and witnesses, the Victim and Witnesses Memo states that particular attention should also be given to individuals who are involved in litigation or a protected activity related to civil rights or liberties violations.

Following the Administration’s executive orders on immigration and DHS’s February 20, 2017 implementation memo, numerous reports from police chiefs and prosecutors have recorded steep reductions in the reporting of domestic violence and sexual assaults. Prosecutors report that victims of physical and violent assault have dropped their cases for fear that ICE will be at the courthouse and they will be deported.  Immigration enforcement actions that take place at schools, courthouses, hospitals, police stations, victim service agencies and other sensitive locations have a chilling effect on the reporting by victims and witnesses of crime, which reduces the overall community safety. In Los Angeles, reports of sexual assault have dropped 25 percent among the city’s Latino population since the beginning of 2017 compared with the same period last year, and reports of domestic violence have fallen by 10 percent.  In Houston, police have noticed a 42.8 percent decrease in the number of Hispanic victims reporting rape in the first three months of this year compared to the same period last year.  In a recent survey of advocate and legal service providers, 78 percent of respondents reported that immigrant survivors expressed concerns about contacting the police and 43 percent of advocates worked with immigrant survivors who dropped civil or criminal cases because they feared continuing their cases. 

Statistics and stories such as these underscore the chilling effect that unclear and misguided policies can have on the reporting of violent crimes. They also undermine Congressional findings in VAWA 2000 that all women and children who are victims of crimes in the United States “must be able to report these crimes to law enforcement and fully participate in the investigation of the crimes committed against them and the prosecution of the perpetrators of such crimes.”  When victims are too scared to report crimes this undermines public safety for all and allows perpetrators to go unpunished.

Currently, DHS’s policies regarding immigrant victims are unclear. In order to clarify the department’s policy, we urge the Committee to include report language that directs ICE to: (1) issue an official statement directing ICE officers, special agents, and attorneys to exercise all appropriate prosecutorial discretion to minimize any effect that immigration enforcement may have on the willingness and ability of victims, witnesses, and plaintiffs to call the police and pursue justice; (2) ensure resources are used to provide officers, special agents, and attorneys with guidance and training regarding the use of prosecutorial discretion for victims of crime and witnesses of crime; (3) report steps taken to minimize the chilling effect immigration enforcement has on victims of crime; and (4) issue a public policy that affirms its commitment to avoiding enforcement actions in sensitive locations including but not limited to schools, courthouses, hospitals, victim service agencies, places of worship and report directly to this Committee any enforcement actions that take place at these locations within the next fiscal year.

The protection of victims, and their access to safety and justice, should be a top priority for our nation’s law enforcement agencies. Clarification of DHS policies and improved implementation of prosecutorial discretion are necessary to ensure that our values are being upheld. Thank you for your consideration of this request.

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