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Law Enforcement: Silent Minority

Illustration by Brent Holmes
Illustration by Brent Holmes

Will fear of Metro's relationship with immigration authorities hamper policing in the Latino community?

Las Vegas attorney Kathia Pereira has represented many undocumented immigrant women who were arrested during domestic violence incidents with their husbands. Often in those cases, the man, a U.S. citizen, is released on bail, whereas the woman is placed in deportation proceedings and faces her worst nightmare: separation from her kids. 

“That’s when I come to learn that the woman has been abused for over 10 years and just couldn’t take it anymore, so she answered back,” says Pereira. “They end up detained as aggressors when in fact they are victims of a cycle of violence.” 

If a record of the abuse exists, Pereira helps the women apply for U-visas. The “crime victims visa,” as it’s known, offers a pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants who help law enforcement prosecute violent crimes like rape, murder, or assault. Often, though, there is no record. Undocumented immigrants who experience violent crime are increasingly afraid to call Metro, activists and lawyers say, because of its partnership with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

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“The fear to report crime is a problem that I’ve seen for the 15 years that I’ve practiced,” Pereira says. “But it’s at its worst now since President Trump came into office, and ICE started this huge campaign against immigrants. The fear has escalated to a point where these women are not going to call, people are being robbed and assaulted and they’re not going to call the police to report it because they are afraid.”

Under the Trump administration, ICE is mandated to remove everyone who is in the country unlawfully, including “Dreamers” whose Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) protections are expiring, veterans, minors, and women like Pereira’s clients. This is a significant escalation from President Obama’s standards, which stated that only undocumented people convicted of serious crimes should be deported.

The Homeland Security​ Department​​'s enforcement ​arm partnered​ with Metro ​in 2009​. Through its 287(g) program​,​ ​​Clark County Detention Center​ ​officers act as ICE ​agents. But Metro insists that it's not applying ICE's standards​​​. “We’re focusing on violent crime, not on jaywalkers or people with traffic tickets,” says Richard Forbus, deputy chief ​of detention services. “A lot of these folks are operating under the radar in their own community, victimizing their own folks, and I think we’ve actually made a safer community by identifying these people and getting them into the system.​"​

But that’s at odds with Metro’s 2016 agreement to “process for removal aliens who fall into ICE’s civil immigration enforcement” — a wide-open scope. And in any case, Metro isn’t the only local law enforcement entity in contact with ICE. Undocumented people are regularly arrested for low-level crimes like unpaid parking tickets within Las Vegas city limits, and after fines are paid or time served, transferred by the city jail to ICE​ custody in Henderson, Mesquite, or Pahrump​.​

​Stories​ of minor offenses dovetailing into deportations are circulated widely in the immigrant community as cautionary tales. Then, when domestic violence calls ​end with victims​ separated from their kids, other battered women feel scared to call police, neighbors don’t speak up, and violence goes unreported.

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“Batterers use a victim’s immigration status as an opportunity to control them,” says Liz Ortenburger, CEO of Safe Nest, a domestic violence treatment center. “We have cases of batterers who tell their significant other, ‘You can’t call the police because then you’ll be deported.’ Within the undocumented community that’s a very common element of coercion.”

U-visas are intended to safeguard against this problem by providing legal protections to victims who assist law enforcement. Either Metro or the District Attorney must certify that the victim was helpful, though, and immigration lawyers say the police department is increasingly stringent in the way it interprets that aspect of the law. Whereas most applications were certified in the past, they say most are rejected now.

“Police and the DA depend on the victims making themselves available to testify, but they’re not there for the victim when the victim needs it,” says attorney Sarah Perez. One of her clients had a U-visa request denied by Metro even after he took the witness stand against a gang member who killed his son.

“Undocumented people already think the police will turn them in to immigration. This is a protection from that. But they’re not even going to try anymore,” says Perez.

Metro doesn’t track the number of U-visa forms it certifies or rejects, and the department says its standards are consistent with federal guidelines. Yet the perception in the immigrant community is that President Trump’s tough immigration stance is influencing local police.

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“We’re hearing more fear in the voices of our (undocumented immigrant) victims,” says Safe Nest CEO Ortenburger. “It makes sense given the current political climate that they may be reluctant to put their hand up.”

This fear of police among undocumented immigrants, the majority of whom are Latino, is not unique to Las Vegas; it’s a national phenomenon. In 2017, Los Angeles and Houston police departments saw notable declines in crime reports from Latino communities despite steady call rates from other ethnic groups, and found similar trends in Denver, Philadelphia, and Dallas, which experts associated with a mistrust of law enforcement stemming from tough immigration policies.

Metro doesn’t yet know if crime reporting dropped in 2017. The effect of that trend might be especially pronounced in Nevada if it has. On a per capita basis, the state has the largest percentage of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. — about 8 percent of the population — and that ratio is likely to grow in the coming months as several of the President Trump’s executive orders take effect. An estimated 6,300 Nevadans from El Salvador and Honduras will lose their temporary protected status (TPS), an order that many of them have lived on for more than 20 years in the U.S. Some 13,000 DACA recipients may go into the legal shadows, too, if that program expires without a legislative replacement.

“We’re going to have higher crime in the city whether we like to admit it or not,” says Hardeep “Dee” Sull, former chairperson of the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s Nevada chapter. “Undocumented people may not do the Good Samaritan deed anymore because that may just put their families at risk.”

These tensions were on display at Metro headquarters when the department hosted a public steering committee meeting with ICE on December 19. During the Q&A session, a man named Carlos stood and, through an interpreter, asked: “How do I know when an officer is working with ICE? And how can I feel safe if I don’t know that?”

Under the lights of Spanish- and English-language news cameras, Forbus tried to assure the man that law-abiding immigrants shouldn’t be afraid since Metro only collaborates with ICE inside its detention center, that no one is jailed without probable cause, and that even then, the department prioritizes serious criminals. Still, questions pertaining to trust and fear came up again and again.

“After that meeting we decided we’re going to do more public outreach to let people know that we’re there for them,” Forbus says. Metro sometimes holds a Hispanic Citizens Academy at Latin American consulates to educate immigrant communities on their policies. “We’re not asking for their immigration status when we’re out on a call,” he added. “We’re there to try to help the next victim of a crime and be a partner with that community. People should never be afraid to call us when they need help.”

Alicia Contreras, interim state director for Mi Familia Vota, said that undocumented people’s fear of law enforcement is affecting her work, too. When Mi Familia Vota and its partners held naturalization workshops in 2016, they saw record turnout, but participation has dwindled as people have grown wary of what might happen in rooms where a large number of undocumented people are gathered at the same time. Now when activist organizations plan events, they change locations to make attendees comfortable and ask themselves, Do we invite the police department? How is that going to affect turnout?

“The community doesn’t differentiate with 287(g) as to whether it’s just in the jails or out in the community,” she says. “All they know is that Metro is working with ICE. They don’t want to answer [police] questions. They’re just more fearful. Some communities are moving back to the shadows.”