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This article was originally published on March 06, 2008.

Immigrant survivors of crime are less likely to reach out for help when police are expected to enforce immigration law

Many of the immigrant survivors that reach out to Tahirih for help in the wake violent crimes do not have legal status when they first turn to Tahirih, but all are eligible to stay in the United States under federal laws—the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA)&#8212.

These federal protections, painstakingly elaborated over 15 years, are intended to encourage immigrant survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking, and certain other violent crimes who do not have legal status, or who depend on the perpetrator of the crimes against them for their legal status, to escape violence, seek help, report crimes, and cooperate with law enforcement in the investigation and prosecution of crimes without fearing that they will be automatically deported.

Batterers who abuse their immigrant wives often deliberately withhold required filings to confer legal status on them. A batterer can thereby exploit his control over his wife not only in that moment, but also in countless later moments in which he can hold the fact that she is “illegal” over her head to exact her silence and compliance.

Traffickers employ similar tactics, forcing or duping victims into using false immigration documents to make good on their threats that if the victim comes forward, it is she—not the trafficker—who will be punished. Perpetrators of many other crimes against immigrant victims are likewise opportunistic predators who count on victims’ fear of the authorities to avoid prosecution.

Yet, a rash of proposals introduced in recent years at the state and local levels in Virginia to step up immigration enforcement activities threatened to undermine these prudent, safety-centered federal protections and to cause the attention of local authorities to revert from a victim’s safety, to her status. Tahirih has spearheaded the efforts of the survivor advocacy community to defeat such measures.

Where defeat was not possible, Tahirih has also tried to minimize the terrible “chilling effect” that such measures have on immigrant victims, who invariably fear that seeking help from the authorities may then lead to their deportation. Tahirih has:

  • Testified at hearings before the Board of Supervisors in both Prince William and Loudoun Counties.
  • Helped convene two state-wide summits in Summer 2007 that brought together a broad spectrum of interested advocates to build consensus and develop strategy around responding to these developing state and local threats.
  • Engaged in extensive education and outreach to the public and policymakers, through candidate questionnaires, media interviews, published articles, and presentations at statewide domestic violence conferences.
  • Testified at the VA State Crime Commission’s Illegal Immigration Task Force on the dynamics that render immigrant survivors of crime particularly vulnerable to abuse and federal protections available to them.
  • Testified at public hearings held by the Governor’s Commission on Immigration.
  • Drafted and mobilized support for a statewide, uniform law that would prohibit state or local law enforcement from asking victims and witnesses to crimes about their immigration status in concert with with the VA Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, VA-SCOPE, and legislative champions.

Tahirih is redoubling its coalition’s efforts and expanding its outreach to critical allies to ensure passage of this vitally important statewide law in 2009. Immigrant crime victims like Tahirih’s clients need, and deserve, an unequivocal message that their lives are valued more than their legal status in this Commonwealth.