Undocumented immigrants often find themselves in a difficult situation when they are the victim of or witness to a crime. They may be hesitant to go to the police due to fears over their immigration status. However, there are good reasons why undocumented immigrants should file police reports if they have been the victim of or witness to a criminal act.
What Is an Undocumented Immigrant?
An undocumented immigrant is someone who is residing in the United States without legal immigration status. This can include someone who entered the US without authorization, someone who entered legally but then stayed past the expiration date of their visa, or someone who was brought to the US as a child and never had legal status.
Undocumented immigrants come from countries all over the world, with the majority coming from Mexico, Central America, and Asia. There are currently estimated to be around 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.
Living without legal status puts undocumented immigrants in a vulnerable position. They face discrimination, exploitation, and the constant fear of detention and deportation. This leads many undocumented immigrants to avoid contact with government institutions, including law enforcement.
Why File a Police Report
There are several important reasons why undocumented immigrants should file police reports if they are the victim of or witness to a crime:
Access Victim Resources
When a police report is filed, it allows the victim to access certain resources, rights, and protections under the law. This can include restitution or victim compensation funds, social services, visa considerations, and more. Without a police report documenting the crime, the victim has a much harder time accessing these supportive resources.
Build Stronger Cases
Filing a report creates an official record of the crime. This record can help build a stronger case against the perpetrator and aid in prosecution. The lack of a police report can weaken the case and allow the perpetrator to more easily avoid accountability.
Filing reports allows undocumented immigrants to develop trust with local law enforcement. This can facilitate future cooperation and improve public safety within the immigrant community. When immigrants avoid contact with police, it fosters fear and mistrust on both sides.
Deter Future Crimes
Reporting crimes can help deter future criminal activity against the immigrant community. When criminals realize they can target undocumented immigrants with impunity, they are emboldened to commit more crimes. Reporting makes it riskier for predators who count on the silence of their victims.
When undocumented immigrants report crimes, it helps generate accurate statistics on the victimization of this community. Accurate data better conveys the challenges faced by immigrants and highlights where further policy interventions may be needed to improve public safety.
What Are Police Policies on Reporting?
Despite fears of deportation, most police departments today have policies separating immigration enforcement from local policing. Specifically, these policies bar officers from asking about immigration status when an individual files a police report.
For example, major cities like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, and Washington DC all have clear separation policies in place. These policies encourage undocumented immigrants to safely file reports without worrying about immigration checks or deportation.
Police focus on investigating the alleged crime itself when a report is filed. An individual’s immigration status is typically seen as irrelevant to this investigative process.
Police policies against immigration checks during reporting promote community trust, improve public safety, and uphold the rights of undocumented victims and witnesses.
Can Information Be Shared with Immigration Authorities?
A common concern is whether filing a police report could lead to information being handed over to federal immigration authorities. However, strict limits are usually in place over any sharing of information on immigration status.
Specifically, most police separation policies:
- Prohibit officers from asking about immigration status when taking a report.
- Bar any disclosure to immigration authorities that an undocumented immigrant filed a report.
- Prevent direct coordination between local police and federal immigration officials.
- Block immigration agents’ access to police reports, databases, or jails without a judicial warrant.
In rare cases where immigration authorities somehow become aware of an undocumented victim or witness, they are generally discouraged from making arrests at courthouses, shelters, hospitals, or other locations where immigrants seek help.
Thus, while information sharing risks can never be fully avoided, strict separation policies greatly reduce the chances of filing a report leading to negative immigration consequences.
There are some nuanced cases where immigration status could become an issue when filing a report:
Crime Victim Visas
If an undocumented immigrant is the victim of certain serious crimes (e.g. human trafficking, sexual assault, felonious assault), they may be eligible for a special visa granting temporary legal status. But obtaining this visa requires cooperation with police,including sharing details on one’s immigration status.
If federal authorities believe witness tampering or obstruction of justice is occurring, they may be able to obtain court approvalto ask local police for immigration status information on a witness or victim. However, this requires satisfying a very high legal standard of proof.
Repeat Criminal Offenders
If an undocumented immigrant is in police custody as a serious repeat criminal offender, some jurisdictions may allow immigration checks in this limited context. However, immigration violations alone are never sufficient reason for detention by local police.
Outside of these narrow exceptions, the immigration status of a victim or witness is still generally protected and off limits to federal immigration authorities.
Can an Undocumented Immigrant Be Arrested?
For law-abiding undocumented immigrants who file police reports, the risk of arrest is very low. Police have no grounds to arrest or press charges against an undocumented immigrant simply for lacking legal immigration status.
However, an undocumented victim could theoretically face arrest if they were engaged in other illegal activity when the reported crime occurred. For example:
- If injured in an altercation that police determine they had initiated or participated in illegally.
- If victimized while in the process of illegally entering the country.
- If victimized while involved in illegal drug use, prostitution, trespassing, or other crimes.
But absent involvement in other criminal activities, undocumented status alone should not lead to arrest when reporting a crime as an innocent victim or witness.
What Information Must Be Provided?
To file a useful police report, certain identifying information needs to be provided. This typically includes:
- Full legal name and any aliases used
- Current residential address
- Contact phone number or email
- Date and place of birth
- Official forms of ID (e.g. foreign passport, consular cards, driver’s license)
- Social Security number if available
Police may ask for immigration documents like visas or work permits, but undocumented immigrants can decline to provide these without facing negative consequences.
All other information requested should directly pertain to investigating the alleged crime itself. Personal questions unrelated to the crime can be refused.
Seek Legal Guidance When Unsure
Because undocumented immigrants are in a uniquely vulnerable position, it is advisable to seek legal guidance from an immigration attorney if there are any doubts about how filing a report could impact safety or immigration status.
An attorney can provide case-specific advice, intervene if problems arise, and better ensure the rights of undocumented victims and witnesses are protected. Having skilled legal counsel greatly reduces concerns when navigating interactions with law enforcement.
Police Are Here to Help
Ultimately, responsible police aim to assist all victims and witnesses equally, regardless of immigration status. By reporting crimes, undocumented immigrants help build trust with local police, improve public safety, and bring criminals to justice.
In the process, undocumented victims may also gain access to supportive resources and legal protections they may badly need following a crime. Despite legitimate fears, reporting victimization to the police is typically the wisest option that can both help the community and the victim.