When Undocumented Immigrants Don't Report Crimes, We All Suffer

(Annie Spratt/Unsplash)
(Annie Spratt/Unsplash)

Imagine if nearly three-quarters of the people living in a particular community did not report being raped, beaten or burglarized. Politicians, law enforcement and advocates would search for explanations and worry about the implications for public safety.

But this scenario isn't hypothetical. It is playing out in Massachusetts and across the country as the federal government seeks to erode the rights of immigrants and the sanctity of our legal system. Indeed, recent news coverage about the increased presence of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in courthouses has highlighted the vulnerability facing immigrants in this chilling environment.

A 2013 survey of Latinos about their perceptions of police found that 70 percent of undocumented immigrants said they are "less likely" to report crimes to law enforcement if they are victimized because they fear questions about their immigration status. (Roughly 80 percent of undocumented immigrants come from Mexico and Central and South America, which are mostly Latino.)

A recent survey of 715 advocates and attorneys from 46 states and the District of Columbia indicated that 78 percent of sexual and domestic violence survivors who are immigrants expressed concerns about contacting the police. Nearly half of all these advocates reported that they worked with immigrants who dropped their civil and criminal cases because they were fearful of going forward. Local sexual and domestic violence programs throughout Massachusetts have reported to Jane Doe Inc. that many undocumented immigrants are also hesitant to contact law enforcement.

A recent survey ... indicated that 78 percent of sexual and domestic violence survivors who are immigrants have concerns about contacting the police.

Why is this happening? Victims of sexual and domestic violence face many barriers to reporting including: fears of deportation for themselves or others; witness intimidation, such as threats of being reported to ICE; lack of legal representation; unfamiliarity with the legal system; language barriers; expectations of not being believed; and distrust of the government to protect their rights.

The implications are clear. For undocumented immigrants who experience sexual and domestic violence, these barriers are compounded by threats of exposing their immigration status and threats as well as fear of being separated from their families. When the community and law enforcement are not engaged, we miss opportunities to interrupt current and future violence. As a result, everyone’s public safety is put at risk.

The federal Violence Against Women Act recognizes this unique status and vulnerability. Since 2005, Congress has encouraged immigrant victims to report crimes without fear of the deportation. U-Visas and T-Visas were created for victims of violent crime and trafficking so that immigrants who are crime victims can safely cooperate with law enforcement investigations. While the current limit of 10,000 U-Visas and T-Visas per year does not adequately meet the need, the established principles behind these forms of legal protections should inform our current efforts to protect human rights.

The Safe Communities Act would ensure that police officers in Massachusetts do not act as ICE agents by asking about immigration status before providing protection ...

Policies that blur the lines between immigration and community law enforcement endanger the safety of victims, their families and communities. Immigrant survivors’ access to justice is blocked when they cannot safely contact community law enforcement because of their immigration status. The Massachusetts Legislature and governor have an opportunity to shift this scenario in the Commonwealth. The Safe Communities Act would help ensure that people — regardless of their immigrant status — will reach out for help and report crimes to the police.

Specifically, the Safe Communities Act would ensure that police officers in Massachusetts do not act as ICE agents by asking about immigration status before providing protection or detaining or deporting members of our communities. In addition, the legislation prohibits access to information in state databases for use in any federal registry program based on national origin, religion or other protected characteristics. It ensures basic due process rights for people detained in state and local facilities for civil immigration violations.

Just last month the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in Lunn v. Commonwealth that state and local law enforcement have no authorization to hold people solely on the basis of their immigration status. The legislation filed by Gov. Charlie Baker in response — allowing law enforcement to detain some unauthorized immigrants — not only flouts this ruling but uses the issues of sexual and domestic violence to demonize immigrants as violent perpetrators. Rather than increasing community safety, this approach will have the unintended consequence of silencing of immigrant victims who fear coming forward because of an unfair and uncertain immigration system.

Keeping an open channel between all communities and local police improves public safety for everyone. The outcome would be positive: Families would feel safe visiting their health care providers; parents wouldn’t fear sending their children to school and victims of gender-based violence, hate crimes and other violence would feel more able to speak up.

This law would help keep Massachusetts’ communities safe. Survivors of sexual and domestic violence and other forms of violence deserve nothing less.


Headshot of Debra J. Robbin

Debra J. Robbin Cognoscenti contributor
Debra J. Robbin is the executive director of Jane Doe Inc. and has more than 35 years of experience in work preventing sexual and domestic violence.



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