During Domestic Violence Awareness Month, We Must Remember That Real Safety Requires Something Other Than Punishment

10/29/2015 05:41 pm ET Updated Oct 29, 2016

Co-authored by Kelly Miller, executive director of the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual & Domestic Violence

Last week the Senate voted to defeat Senator David Vitter's (R-LA) Trump Act, officially titled the "Stop Sanctuary Policies and Protect Americans Act," (S. 2146), which would have demanded mandatory minimum sentences for the undocumented and compulsory involvement in federal deportation programs for all cities, under the guise of creating "protection."

Domestic violence advocates and survivors know something about protection and safety. We spend our lives dedicated to addressing what happens when women, transpeople, and men live without it. For decades we've seen our lack of safety ignored, compromised, or promised via a reliance on jail time for perpetrators. But in our field, we've discovered that real safety requires something other than punishment.

The defeat of the Vitter Bill was an affirmation that a majority in the US oppose the type of hate filled anti-immigrant rhetoric that has become all too common in this Congress and the Presidential debate, but it was also an affirmation of what survivors, advocates, and women have been saying for years. Domestic violence experts have been vocal in our support for each city that has considered protecting its local institutions from being undermined by entanglement in immigration policy.

We've known too many women like Adriana Cazorla who came to the US in 1995 and endured twelve years of abuse from her husband because the threat of him turning her over to immigration authorities was enough to keep her silent. We've seen women who are deported back to the situations of violence they originally fled when they came to this country who will risk re-entering again to save their lives and their children's.

We've known survivors like Rajeshree Roy who, after spending more than half her life incarcerated, was recently released from prison only to be transferred immediately to a detention facility where she's facing pending deportation. Abused and traumatized as a child and an adult, her story shows us how current systems are more ready to greet survivors with further abuse instead of healing and support.

Domestic violence is already a broadly underreported crime because of widespread lack of trust in the criminal justice system, especially for communities of color and LGBTQ survivors. Not surprisingly, in a report by the National Domestic Violence Hotline, Who Will Help Me? Domestic Violence Survivors Speak Out About Law Enforcement Responses, Washington, DC (2015), both the women who had called the police and the women who hadn't called the police shared a strong reluctance to turning to law enforcement for help: 1 in 4 reported that they would not call the police in the future; more than half said calling the police would make things worse; and two-thirds or more said they were afraid the police would not believe them or do nothing.

To further add possibly being reported to ICE and placed in detention or deported to that equation will only increase that problem.

Donald Trump conjuring the specter of rapists coming across the border may stoke enough fear that it forces vitriolic floor debates but the reality is that women are far more likely to suffer abuse at the hand of their own partner or relative than of someone they don't know. By focusing on the imaginary threats we actually become more vulnerable to possible violence close to home. And when the only proposed solution is incarceration or deportation, we fail to address the factors that contribute to the violence we experience.

Violence prevention requires comprehensive strategies and social justice approaches that are not punitive, but participatory, bringing together all members of the community, including survivors, perpetrators, and government to envision a community that's free from violence. They must focus on shifting society's values from viewing people as objects or as disposable to recognizing each of our inherent worth, dignity, and rights.

Instead of protecting survivors and those most vulnerable to violence and abuse, the criminal justice and immigration enforcement systems in the US too often punish, criminalize, and further harm survivors with a reliance on punitive measures over supporting and empowering survivors and addressing root causes of violence.

As this month comes to a close, Vitter's false solutions should get placed in the wastebin of history. The fact that his bill was thankfully voted down is a reminder that we can and must do better than politics based on fear mongering and ever increasing mass incarceration. We deserve real solutions to create communities that are truly safe for all of us.

Miriam Yeung is co-chair of the We Belong Together Campaign and executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum. Kelly Miller is the executive director of the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual & Domestic Violence