Toward Greater Safety for Immigrant Survivors: Supporting the TRUST Act

On May 16, the battle for immigrant survivors’ safety cleared a major hurdle as the California State Assembly passed the TRUST Act by 44-22. Domestic violence advocates see the TRUST Act as pivotal in allowing immigrant survivors to call the police to report their abuser without fear of being deported because of their own residency status.

State assemblymember Tom Ammiano of San Francisco and his team crafted the TRUST Act in direct response to the federal Secure Communities program, in which all California jurisdictions have been enrolled since 2010. The Secure Communities program mandates that local law enforcement send fingerprints of all arrestees to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) department. Originally, ICE could require local police to hold an individual for pickup – even if the police dropped criminal charges, and even if the person had no criminal background. Deportation cases are separate from criminal cases, so ICE can remove a person from the United States whether or not the criminal courts convict them.

As a result, 29% of Secure Communities deportations in California and nationwide remove people who have never been convicted of a crime. Immigrant domestic violence survivors, who are often initially arrested alongside their abusers, have become wary of calling the police even during a violent or dangerous situation. A recent study by Lake Research Partners, PolicyLink and the University of Illinois, Chicago concludes that Secure Communities makes Latinos – including documented citizens – significantly more reluctant to call the police about criminal behavior for fear that the police will ask them about their own immigration status or the status of people they know. Without police assistance, a survivor is much more at risk from the abuser’s immediate attacks. In addition, the abuser continues to live in the community without accumulating a police history and has fewer barriers to committing violence against other people in the future.

Secure Communities has initiated the deportation of domestic violence survivors who call the police. This happened famously in the case of Isaura Garcia, who called the Los Angeles police in 2011 out of fear for her own safety during a physically violent fight with her boyfriend and wound up arrested and almost removed from the country, despite the police dropping criminal charges. Finally, after a great deal of public outcry, ICE cancelled deportation proceedings.

In another instance, one of W.O.M.A.N., Inc.’s crisis line clients ended up in an ICE holding cell in Texas, awaiting deportation, after the police were called while her partner was abusing her. To pay bail, she borrowed money from her sister-in-law. The result was that she incurred an enormous amount of debt, as well as that she faced being removed from the country.

Because they are aware that they may find themselves in a similar position to that of Garcia or W.O.M.A.N., Inc.’s client, domestic violence survivors and other crime victims fear calling the police even during violent and dangerous situations. “An Analysis of the Barriers Latina Immigrants Face in Washington’s Domestic Violence Response Network” finds that while 34.4% of U.S. citizens or permanent residents call the police while in an abusive situation, only 16.7% of those with temporary visas and 14.8% of undocumented immigrants call. They sometimes may be reluctant to seek help from Domestic Violence service providers as well, due to misinformation from the abuser that leads them to think that providers will entangle them with law enforcement. As a result, they are more likely to stay with the abuser and to be seriously harmed during violent fights. The abuser is more likely to get away without legal repercussions and to continue committing violence in the future.

Secure Communities has in essence made communities less safe – belying its title. Advocates and politicians have been lobbying for measures, including the TRUST Act, that would mitigate this effect of the program. State Attorney General Kamala Harris informed local law enforcement in December 2012 that they may use their judgment in deciding when to honor an ICE detainer that requests them to hold an individual until the ICE can pick them up.The TRUST Act, which next goes to the California State Senate, would allow jurisdictions to opt out of Secure Communities entirely and would only let local law enforcement send fingerprints to ICE if the arrestee was charged with a serious offense.

If it passes the State Senate, the TRUST Act will come to Governor Brown – for the third time. Governor Brown vetoed the first two versions of the TRUST Act, most recently asking for it to be rewritten due to concerns that it had an incomplete list of the serious offenses that require cooperation with ICE.

W.O.M.A.N., Inc. has closely followed the progress of the TRUST Act, anticipating the impact that it will have on the safety of domestic violence survivors. Secure Communities impacts many of W.O.M.A.N., Inc.’s clients, making it riskier for them to call the police in a dangerous situation. This real risk interacts with the fear and confusion that many immigrants already have about the police and their intentions. With the passage of the TRUST Act, W.O.M.A.N., Inc. hopes that immigrant survivors will be more likely to seek help, and less likely to be deported if they do. The TRUST Act is just one step of many that need to be taken to improve the relationships between police and immigrant communities, so that they can work together toward a common goal of safety from abusers and other criminals.

The next several months will see the third version of the TRUST Act make its way through the California legislature. You can join W.O.M.A.N., Inc. in tracking its progress and continuing to lobby for its passage into law. Check out the Support the TRUST Act Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/SupportTheTrustAct) for updates and to find out about events and petitions. You can also write a letter to your state senator – go here (http://findyourrep.legislature.ca.gov/) to find out who that person is, and then you can find their contact information on this page (http://senate.ca.gov/senators).

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