Denver saw a dramatic spike in reports of domestic violence last year, but city officials had to drop four cases in late January and early February because the victims were too afraid to testify. As undocumented immigrants, they worried if they came to court, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers would be waiting to pick them up.
“Our prosecution team was incredibly disheartened. We have worked very hard for many years now to establish trust with the immigrant community,” said Denver city Attorney Kristin Bronson, who took on the role in October 2016. “It’s a real challenge as prosecutors to keep women cooperating with us, and the deportation fear makes them even more scared.”
Under the Obama administration, ICE agents prioritized arresting undocumented immigrants with criminal records, sometimes making pointed arrests at courthouses. But since President Donald Trump signed executive orders on Jan. 25 instructing ICE to ramp up its deportation efforts, the agency’s protocol has become more unpredictable, sowing fear in the immigrant community and hindering local prosecutors who depend on those immigrants to testify in court, especially in cases of domestic violence.
“[Before] I could tell looking at someone’s history whether or not they were likely to be picked up from court,” Denver-based immigration attorney Whitney Leeds said. “Now, that’s not the case. It’s really a free for all.”
Leeds and her colleagues at the Meyer Law office had seen ICE officials hanging out in Denver courthouses, intimidating undocumented immigrants. But they wanted proof to show city officials. Their chance came in February, when Leeds noticed three stoic, empty-handed men standing in the Lindsey-Flanigan Courthouse hallway. As Leeds tried to get some information from them, her colleague started filming. Were they here to arrest someone? Yes. Did they have a warrant? No.
The same month, ICE officers arrested a domestic violence victim in the hallway of an El Paso courthouse after she attended a hearing for a protective order against her abuser.
“It only takes one case for the negative association and that fear to take hold,” said Elissa Steglich, a clinical law professor at the University of Texas Immigration Clinic. “[Immigrants] are desperately looking for safe spaces right now, and they are not finding that in the courts.”
While ICE couldn’t confirm whether officers had arrested any domestic violence victims in Denver courthouses, the fear is real.
Reports of nine different crimes often associated with domestic violence, including assault and protection order violations, are down 12 percent for Hispanics and up 4 percent for non-Hispanics in Denver so far this year compared to the same period last year. In Houston, the police chief reported that the number of Latinos reporting rape has plummeted by nearly 43 percent in 2017. A similar decrease showed up in Los Angeles Police Department statistics. In March, Sheriff Charlie Beck said there was a “strong correlation” between the change in crime statistics and Trump’s immigration executive orders.
Denver officials aren’t certain about the cause of the city’s drop in crime reporting, but people working closely with victims think the decrease is related to fear of deportation — rather than a decrease in abuse.
“My sense is that they simply aren’t calling the police anymore,” said Linda Pettit, Denver’s Victim Community Outreach program manager. “The one thing we know about domestic violence from years of research is that the violence gets more severe and frequent over time. If your one way of hope is the court, and you’re afraid to go, it’s a pretty dire outlet.”
After her office had to drop the four domestic violence cases, Bronson began brainstorming with her colleagues about how they could protect victims, who often wait in the courthouse hallways for long periods before they’re called to testify. It’s hard to win a domestic violence case without a testifying victim, since victims are often the only witnesses to their abuse.
Bronson’s office eventually landed on the solution: Victims now wait one block away at a new domestic violence resource center, the Rose Andom Center, instead of at the courthouse.
“We’ve never done anything like this before, but we’ve never had this level of fear and anxiety,” Bronson said of the new protocol.
Nationwide, immigration arrests increased more than 30 percent in the first two months of 2017 compared to last year, and arrests of undocumented immigrants with no criminal records more than doubled, according to the Washington Post. As of April 15, ICE had arrested 1,326 people this year in Denver, of which 1,154 were convicted criminals, according to an ICE spokesperson. While ICE wouldn’t provide a breakdown of the offenses, undocumented immigrants are often charged with nonviolent offenses, like working with fake Social Security numbers or driving without licenses.
Denver’s mayor, Michael Hancock, has made domestic violence awareness a priority since his sister was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in 2002. Although Denver was already limiting cooperation with ICE, Hancock was initially hesitant to brand Denver as a sanctuary city — a term for jurisdictions that decline requests from ICE to detain undocumented immigrants. As pressure from the community mounted though, Hancock officially labeled Denver a sanctuary city in late January, just days after Trump signed the two executive orders expanding ICE’s discretion. But since courthouses are open to the public, even being a sanctuary city doesn’t keep ICE from entering them.
In an April 6 letter to Jeffrey Lynch, ICE’s Denver field officer, Hancock and other city officials, including Bronson, asked the agency to treat courthouses like it already treats schools, churches, and hospitals — as sensitive locations only used to arrest people as a last resort. “Already, we have victims of domestic violence refusing to come to court for fear of immigration consequences, which results in violent criminals being released into the community,” the letter read.
Lynch hasn’t responded to the letter, and an ICE spokesman said he wasn’t available for comment. Since courthouses typically search people for weapons, however, ICE considers them less of a safety risk and a strategic spots for arrests, according to a spokesperson.
In an effort to get city officials to pass laws that better protect undocumented immigrants within the criminal justice system, Leeds and her colleagues are holding a public forum in Denver on April 27.
“What we’re trying to do is to make it so nobody that is a city employee working on city time can use resources to cooperate with ICE,” she said. Among their demands are an official policy preventing ICE from entering Denver courthouses. Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives proposed a similar bill in late March.
So far, Denver has no such proposals on the table, and officials are still weighing their options.
“We want to make sure we are upholding people’s rights, but at the same time there is a value in working with ICE officials,” said Amber Miller, the communications director for the Denver mayor’s office. “There is information-sharing on dangerous and violent people, and we need to be working together at those times. It’s much more nuanced.”