Mateo* was working at a cell phone store in early 2011 when a man entered acting like a regular customer. After the other customers left, however, he brandished a sawed-off shotgun in Mateo’s face and demanded money. The assailant took Mateo’s laptop and phone, and threatened to kill him if he called the police. Undeterred, Mateo called 911 when the thief left. It turned out that this man had robbed several other stores and the Dallas police needed Mateo’s help. Mateo, who was brought to the United States when he was six and had no legal status at the time, gave a statement to police and identified his attacker from a photo lineup. Police caught the criminal. The district attorney charged him with aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon. Then Mateo testified at the trial and the man was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
This type of cooperation between undocumented immigrants, and others in immigrant communities, is threatened due to an Executive Order on immigration that President Trump signed January 25 and a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) memo from February 20, 2017 implementing it. The implications of this executive order, titled “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” are just starting to be felt, as reports of increased immigration raids around the country become more frequent. This executive order dramatically increases the scope of immigration enforcement, to equate convicted felons with those who have never committed a crime, and seeks to force local law enforcement to collaborate with federal deportation officers.
The cooperation of immigrants with local law enforcement is a crucial part of community policing. Mateo’s story is one of hundreds we have heard at Human Rights Initiative of North Texas (HRI) in our work with U Visa applicants. The federal government created the U Visa because law enforcement realized that immigrant victims and witnesses to lawbreaking often are fearful of reporting those crimes, cooperating with police and testifying in court due to a fear of deportation. The U Visa incentivizes and rewards immigrants for reporting serious offenses and assisting in the prosecution of criminals. To qualify for a U Visa, law enforcement must certify that that applicant helped them with the case. Applicants must also show that they suffered mental or physical trauma due to the crime, that they will continue to assist law enforcement with whatever is needed, and that this help furthers U.S. goals of protecting immigrant victims of crimes.
Mateo applied for a U Visa and is waiting for one to become available to him, since only 10,000 are granted a year. But this type of cooperation is now in serious jeopardy as fear looms in immigrant communities based on the new government policies and recent raids. In the week leading up to February 13, 2017, Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) reported that it had arrested 680 people for immigration violations. While ICE claimed these were routine roundups and not part of a new effort on its part, President Trump tweeted that this was part of his new plan to get tough on immigrants.
Indeed, the executive order and DHS memo on Interior Enforcement contemplate a large deportation force detaining and ultimately deporting thousands of immigrants, regardless of their criminal history. Under President Obama, ICE was instructed to prioritize for arrest serious felons, recent entries and people who had been previously deported. The new executive order does not focus on serious criminals but instead lists – without prioritizing anyone – all the different types of people who can be picked up. This includes anyone who is suspected of ever committing a crime, even without a conviction. Thus, an alleged jaywalker is now considered the same priority as a murderer for ICE to find, detain and deport. Deporting families and long-time residents takes the same precedence as removing serious criminals. This is striking fear in the hearts of many immigrant families.
The executive order and DHS memo also propose several partnerships with law enforcement that would deputize local police to enforce immigration laws. Local governments are often opposed to these associations because they want to focus on preventing and solving crimes; they are too busy and it is not their role to enforce immigration laws. Prior programs that affiliated federal immigration with local law enforcement were widely criticized and led to costly lawsuits due to abuses including increased racial profiling and a lack of oversight.
These policies make our communities less safe. They will make it much more difficult for law enforcement to obtain cooperation from immigrant victims and witnesses to crimes. Our client Josephina* was able to put her abuser behind bars because she trusted the police would help her despite the fact that she was undocumented. She was in a relationship with a U.S. Citizen who physically and emotionally hurt her. When she tried to leave him, he attacked her, pushing her against a wall and punching her face and head several times with his fist. Josephina was able to get away and called the police. She prosecuted him for assault and he was found guilty. She also has applied for a U Visa.
Mateo, Josephina & HRI
We need people like Josephina and Mateo to feel safe calling the police, reporting crimes and helping with the investigation and prosecution. At HRI, we are concerned that these new government policies will undermine our security by equating all immigrants with dangerous criminals and breed distrust between immigrants and the police we rely on to keep us safe.
*All names have been changed.