End Racial Profiling to Protect Immigrant Women and Children

By Emily Butera, Senior Program Officer for Detention and Asylum at the Women’s Refugee Commission and Amy Elmgren, Detention and Asylum Intern at the Women’s Refugee Commission

Jeanne[1] , from Haiti, lived in the U.S. with her four U.S. citizen children. The sheriff’s department appeared at her home after her abusive boyfriend made a false 911 call against her. Rather than protecting her, the police placed her under arrest, booked her, strip searched her in front of male deputies and then sent her to a detention facility over 400 miles away from her children.

No one asked Jeanne about the domestic violence she had suffered at the hands of her boyfriend or told her that she might qualify for immigration relief because she had been a victim of crime. And no one responded to her concerns for the safety of her children. Jeanne had no way to keep in touch with her children or to make arrangements for their care while she was in detention. When she was finally released several months later, Jeanne learned that one of her sons had been sleeping in his abusive father’s taxi cab and her daughter was living with a school friend’s family after her father kicked her out of the house. An interaction with the police, who were supposed to protect Jeanne and her children from the boyfriend’s abuse, had ended up leaving her children in increased danger of neglect and abuse. The experience left Jeanne and her children traumatized, and put her at risk of both deportation and permanent separation from her children.

This tragic situation occurred because of the growing involvement of local police in immigration enforcement and the tendency towards racial profiling that this partnership encourages. Jeanne is only one of many undocumented mothers in this kind of situation. The Women’s Refugee Commission hears countless stories from women in immigration detention who regret having called the police to report domestic violence or who fear any interaction with law enforcement. We have documented these cases in several reports, including “Torn Apart by Immigration Enforcement: Parental Rights and Immigration Detention.”

Programs like Secure Communities encourage local law enforcement officers to ask about immigration status when responding to a police call. Too often, these officers err on the side of overzealous enforcement. This leads to cases like Jeanne’s, where police take anyone who they think looks or sounds “undocumented”— because of their race, ethnicity, native language or other characteristics — into custody so they can check their status, even if the person called to report domestic violence or another crime.

It must be noted that not all law enforcement officials make decisions based on conclusions about race, ethnicity or language. Yet it is common for immigrants to perceive that calling the police will expose them to the threat of detention, deportation and family separation. And this happens often enough that it is a legitimate fear. As a result, many victims of domestic violence and crime suffer in silence, even though it puts their lives and our communities at risk, and even when cooperation with law enforcement could open up a path to legal status.

The federal government is aware that Secure Communities has some harmful effects on immigrant communities, and especially on domestic violence and crime victims. A September 2011 report by the Homeland Security Advisory Council’s Task Force on Secure Communities recommended that the program be reformed in order to respect the relationships between local police and their communities and protect victims and witnesses of domestic violence and other crimes from being caught up in the net of immigration enforcement. This acknowledgement is a good first step, but it is not enough to solve the problem.

ICE recently advised law enforcement officers to identify victims so that they can be prioritized for prosecutorial discretion.[2] The agency has also issued guidance to the field discouraging ICE officers from deporting victims of domestic violence and crime without careful consideration. But the reality is that stronger protections are needed to ensure that Secure Communities and other ICE programs are not compromising the safety and well-being of our communities and of those who need immediate protection.

The End Racial Profiling Act (H.R. 3618), introduced in the House of Representatives in December 2011, would help protect vulnerable immigrant women like Jeanne by prohibiting both federal immigration officers and local police from arbitrarily using factors like race, ethnicity, national origin, religion or gender in deciding whether to question someone about their immigration status or any other personal information. It would also allow individuals who feel that they have been victims of racial profiling to file a complaint through the Department of Justice, which would help officials monitor jurisdictions where racial profiling seems rampant. Combined with ICE’s own reform efforts, the protections set forth in this bill — especially its inclusions of gender and national origin — would prevent more domestic violence victims and crime victims — and by extension more immigrant women — from being unnecessarily punished and separated from their children.

No one — no matter her or his legal status, skin color, religion or gender — should have to fear asking for help from law enforcement. This is especially true for victims of domestic violence whose lives — or whose children’s lives — are at risk. Passing H.R. 3618 is a critical step towards ensuring that mothers like Jeanne feel safe coming out of the shadows to report crime and abuse. It would make every one of us safer.


Emily Butera serves as senior program officer for the Detention and Asylum Program at the Women’s Refugee Commission, where she advocates for the protection of women, children and families seeking asylum in the United States.


The views expressed here by our guest blogger do not necessarily reflect those of Rights Working Group.


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[1] Jeanne’s real name has been changed to protect her identity. This story is based on an experience documented in our 2010 report, “Migrant Women and Children at Risk: In Custody in Arizona.”

[2] Prosecutorial discretion is the authority of an agency charged with enforcing a law to decide to what degree to enforce the law against a particular individual. Read more: http://www.ice.gov/doclib/secure-communities/pdf/prosecutorial-discretion-memo.pdf.