Claudia Valdez’s story underscores how our system of immigration enforcement is badly broken and why local law enforcement’s participation in immigration enforcement makes our community less safe. Ms. Valdez is a 15-year resident of Denver and a devoted mother of three U.S. citizen children. In June 2012, she made a decision that would dramatically affect the course of her life: fearing for the safety of herself and her children, Ms. Valdez asked a neighbor to call the police for help when a domestic dispute had turned physical in her home.

As a result of this phone call, Ms. Valdez – who has no criminal history – was arrested and imprisoned for three days and is currently subject to deportation proceedings, as well as the prospect of permanent separation from her children. Ms. Valdez’s story, one which is repeated in counties across the country, sends a strong message to the millions of undocumented immigrants in this country, as well as their legally present friends and family: avoid contact with law enforcement at all costs or else you or someone you love may be deported.

Ms. Valdez is a victim of domestic violence. In June of 2012, the police mistakenly arrested her because they purportedly believed she was the perpetrator of that violence. In court, the day after the arrest, Ms. Valdez’s husband admitted he was the aggressor, and the charge against her was soon after dismissed. But the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office refused to release Ms. Valdez. Instead, the Sheriff’s office chose to comply with a request by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) – called an “immigration detainer — to jail Ms. Valdez while ICE investigated her immigration status.

An immigration detainer is not a warrant. The sheriff did not have probable cause to detain Ms. Valdez. Yet, the sheriff – like almost all sheriffs across the state of Colorado – had a policy of automatically complying with all immigration detainers. As a result, Ms. Valdez spent three terrifying nights in jail, fearing for her own safety and the safety of her children, from whom she had never before been separated for more than 24 hours. After three days in jail, ICE picked up Ms. Valdez and took her into custody for a few hours. ICE then released her, but not before it decided to initiate deportation proceedings against her, in direct contradiction to ICE’s claimed enforcement priorities.

The public pronouncements of ICE broadcast a myth that their detainer system protects public safety by selecting only serious criminal aliens for deportation proceedings. As Ms. Valdez’s case illustrates, the reality is far different. The vast majority of detainers in this country are lodged against persons with no criminal conviction or only a minor conviction. In Colorado, 39% of immigration detainers are lodged against individuals with no criminal record. Many individuals targeted by detainers are like Ms. Valdez – persons who have been living peacefully in the United States for years, and who come into contact with law enforcement for non-criminal reasons, such as traffic stops, to report a crime, or as a victim of domestic violence. When this type of innocent contact with local law enforcement results in prolonged incarceration and the initiation of deportation proceedings, public safety is put at grave risk. Law enforcement relies heavily on community members of all walks of life to report crimes, to act as witnesses, and to reach out when any other public safety issues arise. When a sheriff chooses to assist in immigration enforcement, that sheriff alienates the large immigrant community in Colorado, contributes to a culture of fear and suspicion within that community, and ultimately undermines public safety and community trust in local law enforcement.

The message Ms. Valdez’s story conveys to immigrant victims of domestic violence is alarming. Any deterrent to contacting the police is concerning, but particularly when victims of domestic violence are involved. Domestic violence is one of the most prevalent criminal offenses in this country, and prosecuting that crime depends heavily on self-reporting by victims. Unfortunately, domestic violence victims report their abusers far less often than victims of other (non-domestic) violence. When they do report, it is not uncommon for victims of domestic violence to be mistakenly arrested, as occurred in Ms. Valdez’s case. It is painful enough for victims that they suffer arrest for calling the police for help. It is unconscionable that they additionally face the possibility of deportation for doing so. Ms. Valdez’s story teaches undocumented women that their punishment for contacting police to report abuse is prolonged incarceration and deportation.

The Colorado legislature took pains to avoid asking women to choose between reporting abuse and deportation. Senate Bill-90, which was in effect at the time Ms. Valdez was arrested (but has since been repealed), required sheriffs to refer inmates to ICE under certain circumstances. However, SB-90 directed sheriffs not to report domestic violence arrestees to ICE unless and until that individual is convicted. C.R.S. § 29-29-103(2)(a)(II). The Colorado legislature carved out this exception to ensure victims of domestic violence were not deterred from contacting and/or cooperating with law enforcement for fear of detention or deportation as a consequence of doing so.   Yet, the sheriff in Ms. Valdez’s cases referred her to ICE shortly after she was arrested, even though she was never convicted of domestic violence (or any other crime).

SB-90 is no longer in effect, and now no law protects domestic violence victims from immigration consequences when they report abuse. ICE has publicly renounced any intention to expend resources deporting domestic violence and other crime victims, particularly those with no criminal records. But Ms. Valdez’s story – and many other stories like hers reported to the ACLU – belies those pronouncements.

Our country’s immigration priorities are badly off course when the federal government expends its resources actively prosecuting law abiding, long-time residents of the United States who come into contact with the police only because they need help. Colorado law enforcement should remove itself from the immigration debate. It should leave the federal government to enforce our civil immigration laws and focus on keeping our communities safe from criminal conduct.

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