by Laura Tillman
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.
Immigrant women “tend to have fewer resources, stay longer in the relationship, and sustain more severe physical and emotional consequences as a result of the abuse and the duration of the abuse than other battered women in the United States,” according to a 2006 paper by Orloff and her colleagues at Legal Momentum. “In particular, research studies have found that abusers of immigrant domestic violence victims actively use their power to control their wife’s and children’s immigration status.”
Orloff calls the new law in Arizona “chilling” for victims of domestic violence living in the country without permission. “A proportion may have had the courage to call the police before, but that will disappear,” she said. “This is essentially a field day for crime perpetrators.” The impact of Arizona’s new law, then, is to push back into the shadows victims whom Orloff and her colleagues have been trying to bring forward for decades.
Advocates fear that if victims do not feel they can call police, even as a last resort, the turning points that sometimes bring them the help and information they need to escape will no longer occur. Instead, more women will wind up dead. In Brownsville, two of the most dramatic recent homicides have involved victims of relationship violence. The first, Brenda Lee Nuñez, was about to graduate from high school. She was at the head of her class. Instead, in February of 2009 her ex-boyfriend, who her family says had been obsessed with her, came into her room one morning, stabbed her nearly 30 times and slit her throat. A year later, Veronica Ibarra was being helped by the Friendship of Women when her husband claimed he was ill and called her asking for help, according to police. Her husband strangled her to death and later called the police and turned himself in, leaving the wife of their four children dead and himself in jail, police said.
These stories are very real to Brownsville Police Chief Carlos Garcia. They are homicides, the most serious kinds of crimes his police department deals with. As a police officer who must protect a population that has a higher percentage of Latino residents than much of Arizona’s border, he would not want to split his department’s already strained resources to pursue immigration law, thereby sapping time and personnel from pursuing crimes like domestic violence. When asked whether Veronica Ibarra was living in the country legally, police said they had no idea. The detail didn’t pertain to their investigation.
“We encourage everybody in this community to report any crime,” Garcia said. “You’re going to have more issues and problems as a result of the crimes not reported [in Arizona] because people are going to be afraid of the local police departments. Criminals are going to take advantage.”
In a month, Garcia says his department receives between 150 and 200 calls for domestic violence, in a city of about 170,000 residents. He believes this is just a fraction of what’s going on in the city. Asked what percentage of those calls he believes come from people who are living in the country without permission, Garcia says he has no idea.
“We don’t ask,” Garcia said. “So we wouldn’t have any idea.”
A border town, the similarities between Brownsville and its sister city Matamoros outweigh the differences. Garcia says he has no idea what criteria his officers would use to ask people about immigration status if Texas instituted a law like the one in Arizona.
“We would have to ask everybody,” Garcia said.
Strong willed and poised, it’s hard to imagine Monica being victimized today. She wouldn’t have stayed in the relationship, she says, if it hadn’t been for the fear that she’d lose everything she’d build in this country for herself and her son.
“I wanted to give my son a good life, I wanted him to study and bring my family forward,” Monica recalled of her rationale when she illegally crossed into the United States at age 19. “It’s not easy. You have to constantly make sacrifices. You have to cry many tears.”