According to immigrant advocates, a new immigration enforcement bill is being considered in Congress, one that would undermine existing immigration law by removing prosecutorial discretion and deferred action-two components that protect undocumented victims of domestic violence. Michelle Ortiz, the supervising attorney of Lucha, a unit within the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, says that Representative Lamar Smith’s Hinder the Administration Legalization Temptation Act (HALT) would force immigration authorities to deport victims of domestic violence who reach out for help. Rep. Smith (R-Texas) has said the HALT Act is necessary because President Obama is seeking “backdoor amnesty” for millions of undocumented immigrants. The bill is cosponsored by Florida Republicans Vern Buchanan, Richard Bugent and C.W. Bill Young. According to MS. Ortiz,Lucha “represents victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking in their immigration matters,” and focuses its work on South Florida, Broward, Miami-Dade, Naples and Fort Myers. “Under the Violence Against Women Act, which has existed for 15 years, there have been specific protections for victims of domestic violence,” Ortiz says, “particularly for people who self-petition, who are victims of domestic violence at the hands of a U.S. citizen or a lawful permanent resident.” Apparently, when their self-petition is approved, and have already proven they are a victim and married to this person in good faith, the Immigration Service gives them deferred action. That is not a legal status, but a protection from deportation, and provides a means to apply for work authorization. By ending deferred action, the HALT Act would strip immigration authorities of their authority to protect victims. The HALT Act would also affect the prosecutorial discretion memos issued by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which, according to Ortiz, are working. “We have an attorney who goes to the immigration detention center in Broward,” Ortiz says. “She sees victims of domestic violence all the time. If she puts together a request for release with evidence of domestic violence, she has been successful in getting them out of detention. So these discretion memos are working…But with the HALT Act, it is impossible.” We must also point out that domestic violence victims also face the possibility of being identified by the federal government’s Secure Communities program if they call the police for help. Secure Communities is a controversial program that allows local law enforcement officers to share the fingerprints of detainees with an ICE database. The program counts the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and all of Florida’s counties as participants. According to Ortiz, domestic violence cases often result in either mandatory arrest or dual arrest, which leads to victims being deported. According to theLucha supervising attorney, the police show up and either they don’t understand the language of the victim, or they can’t figure out what is going on so they arrest both parties, book them and then figure out who is the victim and who is the perpetrator, and let the victim go. But under Secure Communities, it’s too late, because they’ve been fingerprinted and likely turned over to ICE. Unfortunately, due to the large number of people in deportation proceedings who do not have a lawyer and do not know they have legal protections, there is no real way to knowing how many victims of domestic violence are currently in removal proceedings. If this bill were to be considered seriously enough to pass in both houses of Congress, removing both prosecutorial discretion and deferred action, the outcome would be immense, leading countless innocent people to become prey and be caught in the immigration system’s web.
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