Lawmakers worry Trump immigration orders weaken protections for sex crime, domestic violence victims

May 1, 2017

A bipartisan group of 41 House members expressed concerns to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly that President Donald Trump’s executive orders threaten to hurt protections for immigrant victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

In a letter sent to Kelly Friday and obtained by CNN, the lawmakers said Trump’s immigration policies “endanger longstanding US protections for immigrant victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking, and other crimes” and “reduce the likelihood that victims will report crimes they experience or witness.”

The group, led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington Democrat, and Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, sought answers from Kelly on how the executive orders changed immigration authorities’ policies on detaining crime victims and witnesses.

Kelly’s department oversees several agencies, including US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), that enforce federal immigration laws and policies.

In an interview with CNN, Jayapal said the letter was inspired by recent reports of ICE agents apprehending domestic violence survivors at courthouses.

In February, ICE agents detained an undocumented woman at the El Paso County Courthouse while requesting a protective order against an allegedly abusive ex-boyfriend.

Last month, top judges from California and Washington wrote to Kelly about reports of immigration officials appearing at courthouses.

“Immigration agents appear to be stalking undocumented immigrants in our courthouses to make arrests,” California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye said. “I respectfully request that you refrain from this sort of enforcement.”

Immigration and survivor advocates have argued that the presence of ICE agents at courthouses threatens to adversely impact victims and witnesses, undermining local law enforcement’s ability to investigate and prosecute violent crimes.

In recent weeks, some local officials have reported a decline in the number of Hispanic victims reporting crimes.

In March, Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck said rape reports among Latino residents had dropped 25% compared to the same period last year. Houston police chief Art Acevedo said earlier this month that rape reports were down 42% in the Latino community compared to last year.

“This is not a partisan issue,” Jayapal said. “We all understand that, particularly for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, we have to have the ability for them to come forward and not fear that they are going to somehow suffer some kind of a consequences because of their immigration status.”

Thirty-nine Democrats and two Republicans — Ros-Lehtinen and Florida Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo — signed onto the letter, according to Jayapal’s office.

Jayapal said Trump’s “vilifying of immigrants” makes it difficult for Republican colleagues to speak out on undocumented crime victims.

“It’s the demonization that makes it very difficult even for some Republicans to maybe step forward when maybe they would agree with these ideas,” she said. “That’s troublesome to me.”

“We need to be able to come together on some things that have always been core principles.”

Federal authorities at DHS and its agencies have argued they have every right to arrest undocumented immigrants at courthouses, especially in sanctuary cities that do not let them make arrests in jails, and that courthouses are preferable to making arrests in communities because they are controlled environments with security screenings.

They have also denied going after individuals who do not have some other reason to be targeted besides being here illegally -- such as criminal records or final orders for deportation.

DHS has not yet issued a response.

This story has been updated to reflect CNN’s latest reporting.