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How Police Can Protect Immigrant Women

As the Arizona governor tries to push back criticism of the new immigration law, other Southwest communities concentrate on fighting actual criminal behavior.

As the Arizona governor tries to push back criticism of the new immigration law, other Southwest communities concentrate on fighting actual criminal behavior. The author describes a case in point in Brownsville, Texas.

Monica had never called the police before. After leaving her native Puerto Penasco, Mexico, with her infant son in 2003, she had studiously avoided any confrontation that might involve law enforcement. But on August 6, 2009, her common-law husband took all of her belongings out of their apartment in Brownsville, Texas, threatening for the umpteenth time that he would get her deported if she left him. She couldn’t do that, he figured, if he held her things hostage. As Monica looked around her empty apartment, she says, she realized that the man who had hit her, and laughed at her, and threatened her, could not possibly love her. So she took what she thought was a risk of deportation and called the police.

But when the police came, they didn’t ask Monica about her immigration status. Instead they referred her to The Friendship of Women, a battered women’s shelter in Brownsville, where she received therapy and legal assistance. She got a protective order to keep her and her son safe. She learned about visas available to help victims of domestic violence get on the path to permanent residency, and began the application process. The U Visa is available to victims of violent crime, and the Violence Against Women Act also gives women who are married to or recently divorced from their abusers the ability to self-petition for permanent residency.

Monica’s is a success story now unlikely to be repeated in neighboring Arizona, where a new immigration law is set to give victims a heightened fear of deportation if they come forward to report crimes, and criminals the confidence to perpetrate crimes without fear of retribution.

The law requires police officers to question those they suspect of being in the country illegally about their immigration status. A change to the law made late Friday specifies that these questions be asked only when an officer is stopping, detaining or arresting a person while enforcing another law or civil ordinance. This provision makes it unclear whether the perpetrator of the crime or both criminal and victim would be asked in the process of, say, responding to a complaint of domestic violence. Another change signed by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer on Friday makes it unlawful to ask this question on the basis of ethnicity. But there is still a basic ambiguity about what constitutes “suspicion.” For Monica, the fact that she speaks very little English would likely qualify. It is the ambiguity of the law that makes it to unnerving for advocates of domestic violence victims.

“All the women we see are fearful to begin with,” said Katie Hobbs, the director of government relations for Sojourner Center in Phoenix, which bills itself as the largest domestic violence shelter in the United States. Now shelters like Sojourner Center are struggling to understand what the new law means for them and the women for whom they advocate. One thing is certain: the idea that the police now have a duty to question and detain immigrants based on suspicion will deter victims from coming forward, making a low number of cries for help even lower.

According to Leslye Orloff, the vice president and director of the  Immigrant Women Program at Legal Momentum, immigrant women are more likely than U.S. born women to experience domestic violence and, when they do, it is likely to be more severe.

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