Will Immigration Laws Silence Crime Victims?

The opponents of legislation that would outlaw so-called “sanctuary cities” argue that it would turn local police officers into immigration agents and divert resources from their primary job: preventing and solving crime. Law enforcement officers say it could have another, unintended consequence — silencing potential victims and witnesses who will be too afraid to identify themselves to cops.

In response, state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, and state Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, have filed identical bills that would prevent law enforcement officers from questioning the immigration status of a person at a crime scene or a cooperating witness “except as necessary to investigate the offense.”

Rodríguez, a former El Paso County attorney, said his experience in law enforcement was the catalyst for crafting the legislation.

“You want their cooperation, from a law enforcement standpoint, to be able to help solve the crime and for them to make the communities safer and for them to report crime including potential terrorist activity,” he said.

El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles, one of the most outspoken critics of efforts to involve state or local officials in immigration enforcement, said today at a Capitol press conference that he supports the legislation. He’s doubtful, however that it will do much to blunt the impact of the more sweeping anti-immigrant bills now before the Legislature. More than 45 bills have been filed this session.

“It’s a good bill and it’s something that we don’t do in El Paso,” Wiles said. “My concern is even if this passes and you have this other legislation, that it could get quite confusing to people. I don’t think that passing [this bill] along with these other ones is going to put us in a good position.”

Immigration enforcement is the province of the federal government, not the states — and Democrats have been quick to remind lawmakers of that. But federal law also protects witnesses of crimes already, and in some cases can be used to grant temporary legal status to victims of certain crimes who cooperate with law enforcement.  

Authorities may grant a U visa to undocumented victim (and his or her family) of such crimes as domestic violence and rape. The visa gives recipients legal status for four years and can be renewed. It also allows them to apply for permanent residency after three years. The government caps individual U visas at 10,000 per fiscal year, but that figure does not include victims’ family members.

Farrar said these federal protections are not enough, particularly if some of the more draconian proposed legislation is passed.

“The process [to apply] can be onerous and people may not believe it’s very true,” she said of the current options for crime victims. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services oversees the distribution of the U visa and another for trafficking victims, the T visa. Farrar said one drawback to the two visas is the government’s yearly limits on how many are given each year. A witness or a victim, she added, isn’t likely to think about these limited options when approached by law enforcement investigating a crime.

“When you are in trouble or desperation that’s the last thing you think about,” she said.

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