According to immigrant advocates, a new immigration enforcement bill being considered in Congress would undermine existing immigration law by removing prosecutorial discretion and deferred action, two components that protect undocumented victims of domestic violence.
Michelle Ortiz — the supervising attorney of Lucha, a unit within the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center — says that Rep. Lamar Smith’s Hinder the Administration Legalization Temptation Act (better known as the HALT Act) would force immigration authorities to deport victims of domestic violence who reach out for help.
Smith, R-Texas, has said the HALT Act is necessary because President Obama is seeking “backdoor amnesty” for millions of undocumented immigrants. The bill is cosponsored by Florida Republicans Vern Buchanan, Richard Nugent and C.W. Bill Young.
According to Ortiz, Lucha “represents victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking in their immigration matters,” and focuses its work on “South Florida, Broward, Miami-Dade, Naples and Fort Myers.”
“Under the Violence Against Women Act, which has existed for 15 years, there have been specific protections for victims of domestic violence,” Ortiz says, “particularly for people who self-petition, who are victims of domestic violence at the hands of a U.S. citizen or a lawful permanent resident.”
“When their self-petition is approved, and have already proven they are a victim and married this person in good faith, the Immigration Service gives them deferred action. That is not a legal status, but a protection from deportation, and provides a means to apply for work authorization.”
By ending deferred action, the HALT Act would strip immigration authorities of their authority to protect victims. The HALT Act would also affect the prosecutorial discretion memos issued by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which, according to Ortiz, are working.
“We have an attorney who goes to the immigration detention center in Broward,” Ortiz says. “She sees victims of domestic violence all the time. If she puts together a request for release with evidence of domestic violence, she has been successful in getting them out of detention. So these discretion memos are working. … But with the HALT Act, it is impossible.”
Domestic violence victims also face the possibility of being identified by the federal government’s Secure Communities program should they call the police for help. Secure Communities is a controversial program that allows local law enforcement officers to share the fingerprints of detainees with an ICE database. The program counts the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and all of Florida’s counties (.pdf) as participants.
According to Ortiz, domestic violence cases often result in “either mandatory arrest or dual arrest,” which leads to victims being deported.
“The police show up and either they don’t understand the language of the victim, or they can’t figure out what is going on so they arrest both parties, book them and then figure out who is the victim and who is the perpetrator, and let the victim go,” Ortiz says. “But under Secure Communities, it’s too late, because they’ve been fingeprinted and likely turned over to ICE.”
Ortiz says that due to the large number of people in deportation proceedings who do not have a lawyer and do not know they have legal protections, there is no way to know how many victims of domestic violence are currently in removal proceedings.