The Wash
DC Council(Gabi Harrison/ American University)

Advocates demand D.C. council shield immigrants from threats

Residents called on the District’s council to pass a bill that would criminalize threatening to reveal someone’s immigration status to law enforcement.

Activists and other residents urged the D.C. Council’s Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety at an Oct. 4 meeting to pass a bill that would bar landlords and employers from threatening to reveal someone’s immigration status.

The Protecting Immigrants from Extortion Amendment Act would criminalize a threat made by a landlord, employer or other person to share someone’s immigration status with law enforcement in order to extort labor, property or services.

Abel Nunez testifies before the D.C. council on Oct. 4. (Gabi Harrison / The Wash)

“This threat is all too common and is more terrifying than ever in current times,” Laurie Ball Cooper, the legal director of Ayuda, told the committee. Ayuda is an organization that provides legal, language and social services to immigrants in the District. 

Cooper said she has represented hundreds of clients through the organization, many of whom bosses and landlords have threatened with reporting their immigration status to law enforcement. 

She said the bill would allow the city to catch up to the realities faced by her clients, who view these threats as extortion. The bill would also allow the city to match federal laws already in place and those of neighboring Virginia and Maryland, Cooper said.

Cooper said passing the bill would expand the language of the law to protect more people — not just living in the country illegally, but also immigrants with temporary legal resident status.

“There’s a whole range of people who are in an immigration status that could lead them to being susceptible to extortion along these lines,” Cooper said. “It’s not just individuals who are currently undocumented.”

She said that people with temporary legal resident status are particularly vulnerable because their status often has an expiration date or another extenuating circumstance that keeps them in limbo.  

“As a sanctuary city, we have a responsibility to protect our vulnerable communities,” Abel Nunez, executive director of the Columbia Heights-based Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), told the committee. CARECEN is an organization that provides services to Latino immigrants across the District.

Nunez said the District’s government needs to protect its residents because others won’t. The Trump administration has cancelled the temporary protective status of more than a million people, Nunez said.

Councilman Charles Allen stays behind at the Oct. 4 meeting after the other members left for different hearings. (Gabi Harrison / The Wash)

“Given the current political environment, Congress is unable or unwilling to act in the plight of immigrant community members,” Nunez said.

Cooper said passing the bill would convey to victims, who often don’t believe the justice system would protect them, that they can report landlords and bosses who threaten to reveal their immigration status. Passing the law would also send a message to the perpetrators that the city won’t stand for exploitation, Cooper said. 

“The goal is to eliminate the action,” Cooper said.

Councilman Brandon T. Todd, who represents Ward 4 and introduced the bill, said he’s proud to live in and serve a sanctuary city. A sanctuary city is one where local police choose not to help the federal government find and detain people who entered the country illegally. 

Todd said immigrants are particularly vulnerable if they fail to meet a landlord or boss’s demands. 

“They deserve to live in the District free of harassment and exploitation,” Councilman Charles Allen said.

Gabrielle Harrison

Gabrielle Harrison

Future storyteller. I'm a graduate journalism student at American University.

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