The city's agreement allowing immigration agents into the Prisoner Transport Center Downtown may have unintended consequences for victims of domestic violence, advocates say.
Everyone who is arrested in Bernalillo County during the Prisoner Transport Center's hours of operation—it's not yet open 24 hours a day—will have a face-to-face meeting with an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent. Some prisoners will have a detainer placed on them, which means they’ve been flagged by ICE. Anyone with a detainer is turned over to ICE after the U.S. judicial system spits them out.
About 120 detainers have been put on prisoners at the transport center since it opened and immigration agents were given office space there in May, says Leticia Zamarripa, a spokesperson for ICE. She couldn't offer any further information on the holds. She confirmed that a detainer is not removed if a person is found innocent or charges are dropped.
That's a problem for mistakenly arrested domestic violence victims, say advocates. Lawyer Melissa Ewer of Catholic Charities provides free legal representation to immigrants in New Mexico under the Violence Against Women Act. She handles cases of sexual assault, stalking and domestic violence.
She says she has seen victims arrested in Albuquerque. "It kind of goes in waves, but I get calls at least monthly about people that are arrested that are victims of domestic violence." Sometimes, it's a language barrier that leads to the arrest, she says, or the evidence is unclear at the scene. Sometimes, the victim has an outstanding warrant after failing to appear in court on unrelated violations, she adds, such as driving without a license or insurance, for example.
Sgt. Paul Szych is in charge of the domestic violence and stalking unit for the Albuquerque Police Department. He says making a situation safe for a victim is the main focus when officers arrive on the scene. “I can tell you it's not a common practice whatsoever for officers to even run on the computer system the victim's information,” he says.
The Berry administration promised protections for victims when it was crafting this agreement, says Rachel LaZar, executive director of El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos, an immigrants' rights organization. When APD Chief Ray Schultz was asked at a June 30 meeting about what safeguards were in place, he said the onus was on advocacy agencies. "If all of a sudden you find out probable cause wasn't there and the detainer was placed on that person, that's where your group steps up and talks to ICE and says, What's going on here? This arrest was found to be improper, and now I've got somebody with a detainer," Schultz said at the meeting.
"Many victims will not call the police at this point because they think they [police] are working closely with ICE. The abuser is the one benefiting from this new policy."
Claudia Medina, executive director of Enlace Comunitario
Neither the city nor ICE were able to provide the Alibi with more information on those 120 people given detainers at the transport center. No details were available about who has a detainer, how old they are or their genders. "No breakdowns are available at this time," spokesperson Zamarripa said. And, she assured, that info is not available to the public right now.
Claudia Medina is the executive director of Enlace Comunitario, which provides services to Hispanic immigrant victims of domestic violence and their children. She says she doesn't have access to those basic details, either. Her agency would have to have a staff person at the transport center every day to ensure that when a prisoner was given an ICE detainer, Enlace would know about it. "We can't dedicate those kind of resources to do this. We don't have that kind of money," she says.
LaZar says the administration should rethink the effectiveness of requiring advocacy organizations to protect people from the system. "If a victim is wrongfully arrested and deported, it's not likely we will hear about those cases. Those people are really disappeared," she says. Plus, the plan creates an antagonistic relationship between community organizations and police. It's unreasonable to create a situation in which remedies are offered after someone's rights have been violated, LaZar adds, but preventive steps aren't being taken.
T.J. Wilham, public safety spokesperson for the city, says there are protections for immigration victims of domestic violence. Advocates have mentioned concerns about mistakenly arrested victims to the administration, he adds. "Give us the names and we'll investigate it," he says.
Police Chief Schultz fills out paperwork and signs U visas, which offer temporary legal status and work eligibility. "If we have a victim of a crime, there's a whole process where we will find visas for them to be in this country legally," Wilham adds.
But once a person is on an ICE hold, there is no way to apply for the U visa, says Enlace's Medina. Ewer points out that U visas are also not options for those who have not cooperated with the police. "Say you have someone who was a domestic violence victim for many years and due to status, didn't call police. The U visa is not available."
Sgt. Szych says when an officer feels the victims’ cooperation and testimony are paramount to an investigation, the officer can apply for a U visa.
Potential face-to-face contact with ICE will have a long-term chilling effect on people reporting their abuse to police, says Medina. In some cases, the new policy has already stopped some from coming forward, she says.
"Many victims will not call the police at this point because they think they [police] are working closely with ICE," she says. "The abuser is the one benefiting from this new policy." Abusers use the fear of deportation as the No. 1 weapon to keep a victim under control, she says, and now the police are helping the abuser create that fear.
A look at the monthly numbers for domestic violence arrests since mid-2007 neither affirms nor denies the concern that the city-ICE agreement will prevent abuse victims from speaking out. The numbers in 2010 fluctuate between around 300 and 600, but it's too soon to determine a trend.
Szych says the agreement won’t affect victims’ willingness to come forward. When people contact APD with a report of domestic violence, “your immigration status is the furthest thing from anyone’s mind,” he says. “If you're a victim of any crime, our sole purpose is to make sure you have access to all our resources and full access to every remedy available to you under the law.”