California's participation in a federal immigration enforcement program may endanger undocumented victims of domestic violence, according to groups that work with abuse victims.
Last week, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that all 58 California counties had been linked to the federal Secure Communities program. The program provides ICE agents with the fingerprints of individuals arrested by local authorities; the agents then use a national database to determine whether or not that individual is eligible for deportation.
Gov. Jerry Brown has consistently defended the program as an important tool for immigration enforcers. But others say the initiative puts undocumented victims of domestic violence at risk by discouraging them from reporting incidents to authorities.
Camille Hayes, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit California Partnership to End Domestic Violence, said that victims of domestic violence are often arrested along with their abusers if law enforcement can't immediately determine who is the primary aggressor. Should a victim be identified as an illegal immigrant through the fingerprinting process during the arrest, the victim could be deported.
"Even in the best of circumstances, it is difficult for victims to reach out for help," Hayes said. "To erect an additional barrier in this process is completely unconscionable."
Hayes said that immigrant communities are already less likely to report domestic violence incidents because of language issues and a fear of investigation into their or a family member's immigration status. If the implementation of Secure Communities increases that fear, "victims may be more likely to stay with an abusive partner," she said.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not respond to requests for comment.
Launched in late 2008, Secure Communities was the Obama administration's answer to the increasingly heated issue of immigration enforcement, and was characterized as a program that emphasized collaboration between federal and local authorities to capture the "worst of the worst" using sophisticated fingerprinting technology.
According to the state Department of Justice Criminal Justice Statistics Center, California law enforcement received 167,087 domestic violence-related calls for assistance in 2009, the most recent year for which data is available. Of these incidents, 67,702 involved a weapon.
California isn't the only state dealing with the issue. In Texas, an attorney at an immigrant law center set off a firestorm of controversy after telling Women's E-News that she no longer advises undocumented immigrants to contact police to report domestic violence incidents after the state adopted Secure Communities.
Much of the national debate over Secure Communities has centered on whether the immigrants being deported are individuals who have been convicted of a crime – the people the program was designed to catch. The Mercury News reported that the program has led to the deportation of 32,645 immigrants from California since spring 2009, but 8,933 of those individuals had not been convicted of a crime.
It is also unclear whether counties have the ability to opt out of the program. San Francisco and Santa Clara counties initially objected to participating in the program but were told they had no choice in the matter, according to the Mercury News.