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Latest immigration bills will hurt community safety and crime victims

As a long time advocate working with domestic violence victims, I am acutely aware of the impact that legislation has on real people living in communities across the U.S. 

This week, as Congress engaged in a focused discussion over immigration enforcement, I had the honor of being invited to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. I hope my voice was heard, along with those of others who shared the witness table.

{mosads}The hearing was spurred by a tragic event, the killing of Kathryn Steinle, a San Francisco woman who was fatally shot while sightseeing with her father, Jim. The man charged with her death was an undocumented immigrant.

I was on a Senate panel with Jim Steinle, who spoke lovingly of his daughter. Other hearing witnesses, also family members of victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, expressed grief and frustration over their loss and our broken immigration system. As a decades-long advocate for the survivors of crime, I understand their sorrow. I extended my heartfelt condolences to the families.

I share frustration over the current state of immigration system — an outdated mishmash of laws that do not always seem to make sense. The solution to these problems is commonsense immigration reform, which brings some of the most vulnerable crime victims out of the shadows, not the reactionary legislation that is being introduced in the wake of  Steinle’s death.

Some lawmakers are taking advantage of the publicity over Steinle’s tragic death to push anti-immigrant legislation and to blame this incident on policies that limit entanglement between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities. Over 320 localities have embraced policies that reject this type of collaboration, because it undermines trust between local police and the communities they serve to protect.

Members of Congress have even threatened to strip away essential federal grant money for law enforcement in communities that have adopted these types of community policing policies. This approach would harm victims, citizens and immigrants alike.

Congress is taking exactly the wrong approach to this very serious issue.

Members of immigrant communities will not come forward to report crimes or speak as witnesses to crimes if local or state police also are checking their immigration status. Law enforcement leaders have stated repeatedly they do not want to be immigration law enforcers precisely because it interferes with their primary mission to fight crime.

In my years of experience in the domestic violence community and victim advocacy community, I have seen firsthand that when immigrant victims are reluctant to come forward to report crimes, it makes all of our community less safe. Congress affirmed that principle by establishing the U visa for victims of serious crimes and immigration remedies under the Violence Against Women Act, and it has repeatedly reaffirmed it by reauthorizing that critical law.

Before the committee, I shared the stories of real women that highlighted the chilling effect for immigrant crime victims when they fear coming forward to police. One of these victims is a young Guatemalan girl living in Colorado, who was sexually abused by a family friend at the age of five. Mistrust of police prevented her parents from reporting the abuse. A year later, after another young child was victimized by the same attacker, both fathers reported the crimes to the police and the perpetrator was prosecuted. But the second child might not have been harmed had the father of the first victim not been afraid to reach out to the police.

The story is different when communities trust police. In Seattle, where I live, more than two dozen sexual assaults were committed against Asian women waiting for the bus. Their willingness to come forward led to the arrest of the attacker.

I plead with lawmakers to also consider the stories of these victims of crime and to consider the impact of their proposals on ALL victims of crime.

Please remember that the most important thing we can do is build strong relationships between police and their communities, and that means establishing an environment of trust. If victims and witnesses of crime do not feel safe to step forward, the police cannot do their jobs and we are all less safe.

Huang is Public Policy Program coordinator, Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence.


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