Thomas Homan (right), acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, speaks at a news conference in December. To his left is U.S. Customs and Border Protection Acting Deputy Commissioner Ronald Vitiello. Credit: Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

Local police officers say current federal immigration policies are making it harder to fight crime in immigrant communities, according to a new survey.

About 40 percent of the 232 law enforcement officials who responded to a recent national survey said they believe that federal immigration policies have affected their relationships with immigrant communities in 2017 compared with 2016, and 71 percent said that because immigrants face barriers to engaging with law enforcement, officers were less able to hold criminals accountable.

A majority also said it has become harder to investigate cases of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking involving immigrant victims.

About 20 percent of the officers said they believe immigrant victims in their communities are less likely to report or assist in the investigations of violent crimes than before. Among the top reasons for not cooperating: They worry they’ll be deported or the perpetrator will retaliate against them.

“With increased immigration enforcement, what we see in the data is that threats of deportation and fear of deportation is a very, very powerful tool used by perpetrators against immigrant victims,” said Leslye Orloff, who works at the American University Washington College of Law and was the lead researcher in the study. “Increased enforcement strengthens the hands of perpetrators whether that’s intended or not.”

The initial results of the survey were provided to Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting by American University’s National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project. They are drawn from a larger study about how immigrant victims engage with the justice system that will be published this spring.

The data was collected in fall 2017 in response to changes in policies and increased immigration enforcement.

“This helps us understand what is happening on the ground so that we can respond in a way that connects immigrant crime victims with the immigration protections that they are entitled to by law,” said Orloff, who helped draft the federal Violence Against Women Act.

Immigrant victims of violent crime are protected from deportation if they assist the government with investigations or prosecutions. However, immigrants and law enforcement agents sometimes are not aware of these protections.

In the American University survey, more than half of the officers said they did not know whether their police or sheriff’s departments certified special visas for immigrant crime victims.

“This is a call to action that departments need policies and protocols so that law enforcement is aware of this important crime-fighting tool,” Orloff said. “We can’t fight crime without victims coming forward.”

Since President Donald Trump took office, immigration arrests at courthouses, homes and workplaces have stoked the anxieties of people who aren’t authorized to be in the country.

Perhaps most famously, a woman seeking a protective order against an abusive boyfriend was arrested in a Texas courthouse by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. A recently issued ICE memo formalized this practice of enforcement at courthouses, which has generated deep misgivings within immigrant communities.

The memo also limits who can be detained at courthouses. Specifically, it directs ICE agents to avoid arrests in places dedicated to noncriminal matters, such as people who have gone to court seeking domestic violence restraining orders or for child custody.

ICE spokesman Brendan Raedy said in a statement that the agency has a number of initiatives and directives in place “intended to minimize the effect that immigration enforcement may have on the willingness and ability of victims and witnesses to call the police to report crimes or protect their safety.”

ICE has long recognized the importance of victims and witnesses and the role they play in successful investigations and prosecutions,” Raedy wrote in a statement.

Michael LaRiviere, an investigator with the Salem Police Department in Massachusetts, trains law enforcement officials across the country on how to work with immigrant victims. He said that although federal policies and media reports may affect how immigrants perceive local law enforcement, it has not affected how many officers approach policing. While some departments cooperate with immigration authorities, LaRiviere said most officers he comes across in his training sessions aren’t focused on a victim’s status.

“We’re not out there banging down doors and trying to find undocumented people,” said LaRiviere, who co-wrote a forthcoming article for Police Chief magazine based on American University’s data. “We are trying to keep the community safe.”

Bernice Yeung can be reached at Follow her on Twitter: @bmyeung.

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Bernice Yeung is a reporter for Reveal, covering race and gender. Her work examines issues related to violence against women, labor and employment, immigration, and environmental health. Yeung was part of the national Emmy-nominated Rape in the Fields reporting team, which investigated the sexual assault of immigrant farmworkers. The project won an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award and a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting. Yeung also was the lead reporter for the national Emmy-nominated Rape on the Night Shift team, which examined sexual violence against female janitors. That work won an Investigative Reporters and Editors Award, the Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative journalism, and the Third Coast/Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition. Those projects led to ​​her first book in 2018, “In a Day's Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence Against America's Most Vulnerable Workers.”  

A former staff writer for SF Weekly and editor at California Lawyer magazine, Yeung has had her work appear in a variety of media outlets, including The New York Times, The Seattle Times, The Guardian and PBS FRONTLINE. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's degree from Fordham University, where she studied sociology with a focus on crime and justice. She was a 2015-16 Knight-Wallace fellow at the University of Michigan, where she explored ways journalists can use social science survey methods in their reporting. Yeung is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.