Criminalizing Victims: Impacts of the Coleman-Domenici Amendment


Imagine the scenario: A woman is sexually assaulted. She reports the crime. At the police station, she is not treated as someone who has possibly just experienced a terrible ordeal. Instead, she is thrown in jail and is at risk of being thrown out of the country.

Horrific, right? Well, keep reading. More than 2 million women are physically or sexually assaulted by an intimate partner in the United States each year. More than half of these victims of intimate partner violence are foreign-born. Due to challenges like language and accessibility, immigrant women face more barriers to receiving treatment for domestic and sexual violence than do most U.S. citizens.

The situation for undocumented immigrant women will only worsen if the newly reinvigorated Coleman-Domenici amendment passes (S. Amdt. 1158). Proposed by Senators Coleman (R-MN) and Domenici (R-NM), and packaged as a way to "facilitate information sharing between federal and local law enforcement officials related to an individual's immigration status," this amendment actually means that reporting abuse means risking deportation—leaving the woman in the above scenario with two "choices": suffer abuse or get thrown out of the country.

In addition to its effect on cases of domestic and intimate partner violence, the amendment has far-reaching effects. If passed, it would override state and local laws that encourage and protect immigrants in contacting the police if they are victims of, or witnesses to, a crime. Currently, many community policing policies say that police may not inquire about the immigration status of crime victims and other people they come across who are not guilty of criminal acts. The intent behind such longstanding policies is to ensure that immigrants report crimes and information to law enforcement without the fear of their immigration status affecting their ability to access justice. In addition to the damage this amendment would do to public safety and community trust, it also denies states and authorities the rights to determine the public policy that best suits their needs. The Coleman-Domenici amendment would make these policies illegal under federal law.

The amendment, defeated in late May by just one vote, has been changed to include an exception for teachers and health care providers who encounter people who may be undocumented. While the health care and education are social spheres that should certainly be considered as those in which confidentiality is critical, the legislation misses the mark in its very approach. If state and local law enforcement officials intend to administer justice, they must include immigrants of all statuses as members of society. If law enforcement is to be effective, the legal system must create and sustain a relationship of trust within the community—if such a provision were passed into law it would foster an environment of fear and suspicion.

Already, these relationships are strained—in particular, for immigrant women who walk a fine line with violence in their homes. An excellent report by Anannya Bhatacharjee entitled, "Whose Safety? Women of Color and the Violence of Law Enforcement" explains the complexities of the relationship between women of color and law enforcement. From the Executive Summary:

Both home and family have been pivotal concepts in the development of women's movements. This working paper challenges us to rethink our understanding by detailing how the supposedly private spaces of the home and family are another significant site of enforcement violence…

Enforcement violence in the home frequently occurs during drug or immigration raids, which are often undertaken on the flimsiest of legal grounds. Home intrusions by law enforcement have sparked numerous legal challenges and community-based campaigns. Unfortunately, such efforts by enforcement accountability groups have generally reflected little understanding of how women may be caught in an unbearable double bind when they face violence from both batterers and law enforcement.

Please read the entire report for an exceptionally lucid analysis of the relationship between women's reproductive rights and the law enforcement. In particular this snippet ties these many issues together:

Effective strategies for protecting women's reproductive freedom need to be based in a thorough appreciation of the varying mechanisms of restriction, criminalization, and devaluation faced by women—whether they are imposed through legal restrictions on access and funding for abortions, involuntary sterilization, coercive drug tests and coercive uses of contraception, criminalization of immigrant women, or abuse of pregnant women in prison.

Immigrant women's access to justice depends, then, on their being able to participate fully and without coercion or threat in the medical, social and legal systems in their communities. Olga Vives, Executive Vice President of NOW (National Organization for Women), reports to Salon's Broadsheet:

This is an extraordinary attempt to punish the undocumented immigrants in our country. Their lives are at stake here, in particular those women who are dependent on the immigration status of their partners. For victims of domestic abuse, this is a double whammy.

NOW, along with the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health and the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum, are working to raise awareness of the other ways in which what NOW calls the "immigration 'reform' (sic)" bill would hurt women. For more details see their letter to Congress (PDF).

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    This is a critically important issue and I’m really glad that it’s receiving some much needed media attention. Thankfully, the Amendment never made it to the floor before the Senate’s immigration reform bill was pulled last Thursday. Unfortunately, however, it’s likely that future immigration bills will contain similar onerous provisions.