The number of undocumented people with no criminal record who have been arrested by immigration officials has more than doubled since President Trump took office, causing even more fear and tension among the immigrant community. But folks who are particularly at risk now that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials are acting under more broad laws are also among the most vulnerable in society: women, particularly domestic violence and sexual assault survivors, and members of the LGBTQ community.
On Sunday, The Washington Post reported that ICE officials arrested 21,362 undocumented immigrants between January 20 and March 13. For the sake of comparison: ICE put 16,104 undocumented people under custody during the same period in 2016. Most of the people arrested in the past months were convicted criminals. But this year, the number of arrests of undocumented immigrants with no criminal records whatsoever more than doubled — to a total of 5,441.
As if that weren't a troubling enough statistic on its own, this visible increase has also been scaring abuse and assault survivors into not denouncing their abusers.
"So many people are much more vulnerable to being victims of crimes because they're undocumented," Grace Huang, the policy director for Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence, told Refinery29. "Abusers and perpetrators completely exploit that."
For example, in February a 33-year-old transgender woman was arrested at a Texas courthouse when she sought a protective order against her ex-boyfriend. Why the arrest? Because her ex and alleged abuser apparently tipped ICE officers that the woman, who is undocumented, would be there.
In Denver, City Attorney Kristin Bronson said that four domestic violence cases were dropped that same month because victims feared ICE officers would arrest and deport them. In late March, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said that this year, the city of Los Angeles saw a decrease in the reporting of sexual assault and domestic violence — by 25% and 10% respectively — by members of the Latinx community. Beck blamed the Trump administration's policies and language for the decrease in reporting.
There are two reasons why non-criminal immigrants have been targeted by immigration officers.
First, there's the broad language in one of President Trump's executive orders, which makes a deportation priority of anyone who "in the judgment of an immigration officer, otherwise pose[s] a risk to public safety or national security." This is incredibly subjective.
Second, there's a February memorandum issued by the Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. (The DHS oversees the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.) In the memo, Kelly said that ICE "rescinded priority enforcement categories that previously exempted classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement." The order seemingly overturns a 2011 memorandum issued by the Obama administration that instructed ICE officers to use "favorable discretion" and not prioritize enforcement action against crime victims or witnesses.
The result of the increase in arrests and the rhetoric of the current administration has made the immigrant community even more fearful of asking for help in dangerous situations, because it could attract the attention of ICE officials and put people at risk.
"I think there's such immense fear — for people who're undocumented and even for their family members that are not undocumented — about reaching out for any kind of help when they're being harmed, in the context of domestic violence, child abuse, sexual assault, or sexual harassment," Huang said. "It's impacting not just calling the police, but even reaching out and getting other kinds of help when there's no reason to believe that there might be any immigration enforcement related to it."
It's important to note that during President Obama's two terms, the agency also deported thousands of undocumented immigrants with no criminal records. (Hence, the "Deporter-in-Chief" nickname some critics in the immigrant community gave Obama.) But the reason the 2011 memo was issued was because domestic violence survivors and crime victims where being picked up by immigration officials, without regards for their possible testimony in a criminal case or whether they would be eligible for immigration relief — such as a U visa, which is offered to victims of certain crimes who cooperate with the authorities.
The order aimed to change that pattern, but now, things are way different. Huang believes that the fear is worse than it was pre-2011, because there's a lot uncertainty surrounding what ICE can and can't currently do.
"It feels like ICE officers don't have clear direction about what they should be doing, and they're certainly going to courthouses and picking people up," Huang said. "They might not be targeting victims and witnesses, but the fact that they're there at the courthouse makes people afraid [to come forward.]"
She added, "The challenge is that it doesn't feel like this administration takes the Violence Against Women Act and the victims' protections seriously. There's a lot of language being put out there of 'enforcement of the law' and detaining people that are here without authorization, without any regard of the fact that Congress has passed these protections for victims. In the past it felt like [ICE] took that more seriously than they do now. The language out there is that it doesn't matter if people are victims."
It doesn't help, either, that the process to apply for protections such as the U visa is so long. According to Huang, the application itself can take over a year to be approved. And then, waiting for the actual visa can take years, too.
"People are trying to figure out if it's too risky to put their information in front of immigration [officials]," she said. "Our advice to them is that you have more protections that way, but people are very afraid. It's the uncertainty that, I think, is more problematic than anything."
In a statement to Refinery29, ICE spokesperson Sarah Rodriguez said that the agency's "operations are guided by our commitment to public safety."
"When carrying out the immigration law enforcement mission, ICE remains sensitive to the needs of victims and witnesses of crimes. ICE officers will take into consideration if an individual is the immediate victim or witness to a crime in determining whether to take enforcement action," Rodriguez said. "Particular attention is paid to victims of domestic violence, human trafficking, or other serious crimes."
She added, "ICE also works closely with its state and local law enforcement partners to help make eligible individuals aware of, and pursue, U visas for victims of crimes including domestic violence and T visas for victims of human trafficking. Generally, absent additional factors, including criminal and immigration history, ICE will favorably consider an alien’s request for a stay of removal if U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has determined that the alien has established prima facie eligibility for a U-visa."
Huang said that the fact that survivors are afraid of coming forward not only has an immediate risk, but also carries long-term consequences: Predators are not held accountable and can keep abusing survivors, and children can be raised in an environment where violence is normalized with no consequences.
"The bottom line, really, is that when the most vulnerable, the victims with the most barriers, can't get safe, our whole community is at risk," Huang said.