Since Donald Trump assumed the presidency, undocumented immigrants across the United States have been thrown into a state of distress and uncertainty. Five days after taking office, Trump signed an executive order that dramatically expanded immigration enforcement and deportations. The Department of Homeland Security’s implementation of the order allows Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to target a broad swath of nonviolent immigrants who had previously been considered “low priority” for removal. One immigrant was arrested by ICE agents while taking her children to school. Another was detained while obtaining a protective order against her abuser at a courthouse. Those who have lived in the U.S. for years and routinely check in with authorities have found themselves suddenly deported back to a home country that they hardly remember.
Last week, Denver City Attorney Kristin Bronson revealed one of the effects of this crackdown. Since Trump issued his order, Bronson said in an interview with Colorado’s KUSA TV, four undocumented domestic violence victims have decided not to pursue claims against their abusers, forcing her office to drop the cases. On Tuesday, I spoke with Bronson about the victims’ fears and how she plans to respond to growing unease in Denver’s immigrant community. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mark Joseph Stern: Tell me about the four domestic violence cases that prosecutors had to drop.
Kristin Bronson: These women were violently assaulted. Police had been called out and arrested the abusers under our municipal code. We were proceeding with prosecutions and headed toward a trial. But after the president issued his executive order on Jan. 25, all four women called our office. They told us they were unwilling to continue participating in their cases because they feared deportation. They were concerned that if they continued to pursue their claims—and especially if they were called to testify—their identity, address, and location might become known to ICE.
Several of these women may have seen a video recently taken in the Denver courthouse showing ICE agents in plainclothes waiting outside a courtroom to make an arrest. That video was widely disseminated and caused a great deal of fear and anxiety in our immigrant and refugee communities. But some of the calls came in before the video.
Why did you drop these cases?
We didn’t have any choice. Obviously, we didn’t want to drop the cases. But without a witness willing to testify and corroborate the abuse, we simply didn’t feel there was sufficient evidence to maintain the claims.
Domestic violence victims present a challenging situation to begin with. It’s often very hard for us, as prosecutors, to convince women to step forward and pursue claims against their abusers. They fear for their own safety and for their children. They’re in a very controlled relationship and abuse is about control. So it’s already hard enough to get a domestic violence victim to come forward—and when you add the fear of deportation, that brings it to the breaking point.
That’s particularly disheartening because in 2016, we had a record high number of domestic violence homicides in Denver. We’re very sensitive to that issue right now. Our prosecution team is committed to supporting victims. Our office has an entire victim advocate union, and we work to provide women with services and safety plans. We work closely with law enforcement to pursue violent offenders and have them punished. But this fear of deportation is presenting yet another challenge to our ability to address the problem.
As city attorney, what’s your reaction to ICE’s crackdowns?
It’s frustrating to us because we feel that ICE agents have alternatives to going into sensitive areas like courthouses. If there’s a violent or dangerous felon out there, we’d much prefer that agents go to federal court and obtain a warrant for that person’s arrest rather than trying to surprise them or catch them without a warrant.
How is the new administration’s immigration policy affecting Denver?
The previous administration had prioritized violent and dangerous offenders for deportation. This executive order opens that up to people who are here working hard and contributing to their community but have perhaps been charged with some very low-level crime. As a result, the entire immigrant population here feels threatened. We are hearing a great deal of fear from our immigrant communities. There are reports of people going underground, effectively retreating from civic and public engagement of any kind for fear that they will be deported or that their families will be broken up.
I think the expansion of immigration efforts to include nonviolent or nondangerous individuals really jeopardizes families and child welfare. We have undocumented individuals who are here in the U.S., perhaps trying to pursue legal status but in any event contributing to society and not hurting anyone. And the idea that they may be deported and separated from their U.S.-born children concerns us greatly, first because we are a welcoming and inclusive city and second because when you deport an undocumented parent of U.S.-born children, those children frequently end up being taken care of by taxpayers. Many times, family members or friends of the deported parents are afraid to step forward and take care of the children because they might be deported. So the children are placed in foster care or protected by the safety net of the city and our services.
Trump’s Jan. 25 executive order suggests that the federal government will pursue more cooperative agreements with local law enforcement to assist federal agents in enforcing immigration laws. Will Denver be participating?
No. We are not willing to do that. That’s an effort to essentially deputize local law enforcement officers to enforce federal immigration law. That’s something the city of Denver rejects. We feel it is the federal government’s job to enforce the immigration system while it is the job of our local government and law enforcement to protect the health and safety of Denver residents, as well as those traveling through our city.
Federal cooperation of that sort would start to blur the line between the federal and local role, eroding the vital trust relationship that our community has with our police officers. It’s really important for us that victims of violence and witnesses to violence cooperate with police and prosecutors in pursuing charges. Without that level of trust, we aren’t able to do our jobs. We aren’t able to keep the community safe because people don’t step forward and help us. Federal cooperation would create further fear in our immigrant communities that our police officers’ priority is something other than our safety and security. And that’s not the case in Denver.
It sounds, though, like Denver’s immigrant communities are still fearful, despite the city’s rejection of the new administration’s immigration policies.
We are hearing reports that immigrants are pulling back from receiving public services or participating in public programs for fear that they will be flagged for deportation. Our numbers are way, way down on things like after-school and summer programs for children. We are hearing that this is in part attributable to the fact that parents are afraid to drop off and pick up their children for fear that they might be flagged by ICE. We’re also seeing lower participation in food stamp programs and really any public program where participants feel their identity or address might be registered in a way that allows them to be targeted by ICE.
What have you done to combat these fears?
We’ve tried to send a strong message to our community that we are a welcoming and inclusive city, and to make a clear distinction between the federal and local role. We want to make sure our immigrant communities know that as far as our police and public services are concerned, we don’t care if you’re documented or undocumented. You have rights here, and we’re going to respect those rights and treat you with the same level of consideration that a documented person would have.