Undocumented domestic-violence victim fights immigration rules

Ana Vasquez says she tried to explain to the police officers that it was her boyfriend who'd abused her, and not the other way around. She had a broken finger to prove it: In the midst of an argument that turned physical, her boyfriend trapped her fingers between his and twisted his hand, snapping one of her bones. In the struggle, she broke his chain necklace, which caused him to call the cops. When Vasquez showed up at the station, she heard an officer say she needed to be arrested.

"I began to cry and shake because I didn't know what was going to happen to me," Vasquez says through an interpreter. "They took me to the jail, and almost immediately after that, they reported me to [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]."

Vasquez, who was undocumented, was arrested in November 2010, before Colorado implemented Secure Communities, a federal program that checks fingerprints of people booked into local jails against a national database of undocumented immigrants.

But a 2006 Colorado law, colloquially known as Senate Bill 90, requires local law enforcement to report suspected undocumented immigrants to ICE. The one exception is domestic-violence arrests; local police are supposed to wait until after a conviction.

But Vasquez was never convicted. The now-42-year-old mother from Carbondale spent three months in jail, awaiting trial. "I felt completely powerless," she says. "I couldn't eat; I couldn't drink. I spent the days vomiting and thinking about family." Her family wanted her to plead guilty so she'd get out of jail; even her lawyer encouraged her to plead. But Vasquez held strong -- and eventually the charges were dropped and she was let go.

Not for long, however. ICE picked her up, and Vasquez was in detention for three days before her family paid a $5,000 bond to free her. Her lawyer helped her obtain a U-Visa, a four-year visa for crime victims who cooperate with law enforcement.

"But even though I was able to get my U-Visa, absolutely nothing can take away the experience I went through," she says. Vasquez, who came to the United States from Mexico six years ago in order to escape an abusive marriage, says she'd hesitate to call the police if she were victimized again: "I would think really hard about it. I know what it feels like to be in jail, and I wouldn't want to go through that again. "

The Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition is calling attention to cases like Vasquez's to highlight what it says are the dangers of programs such as Secure Communities and laws such as SB 90 -- namely, that they make victims unwilling to report crimes for fear of being deported. Just this week, Weld County pointed out the same problem when it launched a program to educate immigrants about the rights of victims and witnesses.

"All of Ana's friends know what happened to her," says Brendan Greene of CIRC. "That has a tremendous chilling effect and public-safety impact.... Would they dare call the police if they were being abused? That's why we think it's so important that we take a deep look at these programs and call for them to be repealed."

More from our Immigration archive: "Immigration: Supreme Court's Arizona-law ruling meaningless, says Tom Tancredo."

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar