Virginia Mancinas Urtusuastegui was in a horribly abusive relationship. One day, Ms.Urtusuastegui's partner tried to strangle her. As a victim of a domestic violence crime, she called the Garfield County Sheriff's Department (GCSD) for help. What happened next, baffles all those who believe that women who are the victims of such abuse should be protected. Instead of receiving protection from the GCSD, Ms.Urtusuastegui was arrested. Even though the charges were dropped in short order, the GCSD had already reported her to Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), which almost immediately began deportation hearings.

In a letter dated May 2, 2012, the ACLU and the Colorado Coalition Against Domestic Violence (CCADV) explained to Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario that such referrals were “out of step with Colorado law” and “created a strong and perverse disincentive for undocumented victims and witnesses of domestic violence to report the abuse to law enforcement.”

The ACLU and CCADV urged Sheriff Vallario to put an immediate end to this “harmful practice” and extended an offer to collaborate with the Sheriff to create a new policy that would encourage victims of domestic violence to contact the police when abuse occurs. In a brief response to the ACLU, GCSD has signaled its unwillingness to consider a policy change.

ACLU Staff Attorney Rebecca T. Wallace said: “When undocumented victims of domestic violence are referred to ICE as a result of reporting the abuse to law enforcement, the signal to the undocumented population is clear. If you call the police to report domestic violence, you may end up being deported.”

According to the ACLU letter, this message “has the predictable effect of deterring undocumented people from contacting the police to report crimes of domestic violence and diminishing the goodwill towards peace officers that undoubtedly GCSD wishes to foster with the substantial immigrant community in the Roaring Fork Valley.”

Ms. Wallace explained that “effective law enforcement requires that victims of crime, whether documented or undocumented, feel safe reporting crime to law enforcement. This is particularly true in conflicts involving domestic violence, which often occurs behind closed doors in the context of an intimate relationship.”

It is with this concern in mind that the Colorado legislature, even while passing a law requiring sheriffs to report certain arrestees to ICE, carved out an explicit exception to the reporting requirement for domestic violence arrestees. The law is called Senate Bill 90 (SB-90), and the domestic violence exception to SB-90 provides for sheriffs to refrain from reporting a domestic violence arrestee to ICE unless and until that individual is  convicted. “The ACLU generally opposes programs such as SB-90 and Secure Communities, in part because they target people for referral to ICE at the time of arrest, sometimes capturing people who may never even be charged with a state crime, including crime victims, witnesses and individuals subjected to unconstitutional arrests,” said ACLU Legal Director Mark Silverstein. “These programs not only deter people from accessing the criminal justice system, but also invite racial profiling by state and local law enforcement. That being said, SB-90’s domestic violence exception at least mitigates some of the possible negative effects of arrestee referrals.”

According to the letter, adherence to SB-90’s domestic violence exception is necessary to protect domestic violence victims, because it is not uncommon for victims of domestic violence to be mistakenly arrested on domestic violence charges. The letter explains that this can occur because, “abusers will report their victims to the police in an effort to further victimize them.” Additionally, self-defending victims are sometimes . . . caught up in dual arrests when law enforcement are unable to ascertain who the ‘predominant aggressor’ is.”

Ms. Wallace emphasized that “to avoid deterring domestic violence victims from reporting the abuse to law enforcement, it is essential that undocumented domestic violence arrestees not be reported to ICE until after conviction.” Yet, according to the letter, the Garfield County Sheriff’s Department automatically reports to ICE all domestic violence arrestees whom they suspect to be undocumented, without waiting to learn if the person is convicted. The ACLU interviewed and reviewed the records of undocumented women who were the victims of serious domestic violence, reported the crime to law enforcement, were arrested on domestic violence charges, and were booked into the Garfield County Jail. In each case, all charges against the victims were dismissed, yet – according to the letter – because GCSD employees automatically reported the victims to ICE at booking, the victims were placed in deportation proceedings.

“In talking to these victims, they clearly and reasonably felt re-victimized by being sent into ICE detention simply because they had interacted with the police about the abuse,” Ms. Wallace said. “Their experiences have a tremendous chilling effect on the large undocumented community in the Roaring Fork Valley and the state. The message being sent to this community is that if you are being abused, don’t call the police.”

According to Mr. Silverstein, “When GCSD chooses to automatically report domestic violence arrestees to ICE, it thwarts the will of the Colorado legislature, which through strong bi-partisan support, carved out an explicit protection for domestic violence victims to ensure that SB-90 would not deter them from reporting domestic abuse to law enforcement.” The letter posits that the ripple effect of this protection extends directly to abused children, because there is a strong co-occurrence of child abuse in homes plagued by domestic violence. Thus, often the call reporting domestic violence is law enforcement’s gateway into learning about and stopping child abuse.

“During the course of our investigation, we were gratified that several counties – when they learned why SB-90s domestic violence exception is essential to encouraging domestic violence reporting – were readily willing to change their policies to reflect the values of Coloradoans’,” said Ms. Wallace.

“Jefferson County, Mesa County, and Hinsdale County are just a few of those counties that were receptive to ACLU advocacy, and we commend them taking this step to ensure the undocumented community feels safe contacting the police to complain of domestic abuse. Negotiations with several other counties are ongoing. Given the receptivity of these counties, and the strong evidence that GCSD has referred domestic violence victims to ICE, we were surprised and dismayed that GCSD is unwilling to alter its policy.”