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"Baby Hope" Case: Why didn't anyone in Anjelica Castillo's family ever report her missing?

The grave of 'Baby Hope,' an unidentified girl whose body was found murdered in a picnic cooler 22 years ago, is adorned with flowers at St. Raymond Cemetery in New York, October 11, 2013. New York police have at last identified a little girl who was murdered, sexually abused and stuffed into a picnic cooler in Manhattan. She was found on July 23, 1991. New York police officials confirmed the identity of the girl's mother through DNA testing on October 8, 2013, and also identified the father. The family is Mexican and her mother was too frightened to come forward after her daughter's death, because her husband was abusive, local media reports said. The girl's father, who is believed to be either in New York or Mexico, is now the prime suspect. Baby Hope, two years after she was found, was laid to rest in a donated plot. AFP PHOTO/Emmanuel Dunand
EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
The grave of "Baby Hope"' - now identified as 4-year-old Anjelica Castillo - on October 11, 2013; her remains were found in a picnic cooler in Upper Manhattan in 1991.
Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

(CBS) - Twenty-two years after her body was found inside a cooler in a wooded area in Upper Manhattan, "Baby Hope" finally has a name: Anjelica Castillo. And her cousin, Conrado Juarez, has been arrested for her sexual assault and murder.

But the question remains: why didn't anyone in her reportedly large family come forward to report the 4-year-old missing?

It turns out that nationwide, immigrants - even those in the country legally - are often reluctant to report crimes to law enforcement for fear of endangering their own immigration status, or the status of their relatives.

"There is a fear that if you call the police to report a crime you are putting your family in jeopardy," says Nik Theodore, PhD, an associate professor in the Urban Planning and Policy program at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

The New York Times reports that much of Castillo's family emigrated from Mexico, and law enforcement sources told the newspaper that, at the time of her disappearance in 1991, some members of the little girl's household were in the country illegally. 

Twenty years later, some experts say the problem may actually be getting worse. In early 2008, the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency launched "Secure Communities," a program aimed at identifying deportable immigrants in local jails through a fingerprint database. 

"The Obama administration is headed toward its two-millionth deportation," says Prof. Theodore. That fact, he says, has a "chilling effect" on immigrant relations with law enforcement.

Grace Meng, a U.S. researcher for Human Rights Watch who works on immigration issues, agrees.

"It's definitely not helping," says Meng. "Now, immigrants know people who have called the police to report domestic violence, for example, and then been put into a deportation database."

Prof. Theodore is the author of a May 2013 report entitled "Insecure Communities" sponsored by PolicyLink, a research and advocacy organization focused on increasing equality. The report found that 45 percent of Latinos surveyed said that in the wake of local police involvement in immigration enforcement, they were less likely to report a crime to police because they were concerned about having their status - or the status of their family members - questioned.

The issue gets more severe when victims or witnesses of crimes are undocumented: 70 percent of undocumented Latino immigrants surveyed said they are less likely to report that they had been a crime victim.

All this means that an already vulnerable population is feeling increasingly at risk, and the criminals who target them - and others - remain on the streets.

There is some push to combat this trend, however. In 2007, the International Association of Chiefs of Police published a guide aimed at assisting law enforcement agencies in better understanding immigrant communities and the "fear and distrust" many harbor regarding police. The guide informed agencies that "people within immigrant communities are extremely vulnerable to crime" and that "immigrant women may be less likely to report abuse." The organization suggested law enforcement agencies hire bilingual officers and use the services of community volunteers to build trust within immigrant communities.

Meng, of Human Rights Watch, told CBS News' Crimesider that some law enforcement agencies she has spoken with are defying the push to get more undocumented immigrants in federal databases, by actively trying to spread the word within immigrant communities that their names will not be turned over to federal authorities and they should not be afraid to report crime.

On Oct. 5, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed the so-called "Trust Act" into law. The new law allows local authorities to release people for whom the federal government has issued a "detainer" if, among other requirements, their bond is paid and they have no serious convictions. In Los Angeles, Sheriff Lee Baca announced in December 2012 that he will no longer turn low-level offenders over to federal immigration authorities.

In October 2012, the Vera Institute of Justice, a non-profit research and advocacy group focused on justice issues released a report titled "Engaging Police in Immigrant Communities," which found that, among other things, many immigrants have difficulty distinguishing between local and federal law enforcement agencies and their priorities.

One of the report's authors, Susan Shah, told Crimesider that she was pleasantly surprised by what she learned in her research, namely that many jurisdictions in places one might not normally think of as particularly progressive on immigration issues - like Oklahoma and Florida - were making real efforts to reach out to immigrant communities about the perils of under-reporting crime, and creating programs - including anonymous reporting lines - to facilitate interaction.

"There is no silver bullet," says Shah, who is the program director of Vera's Center on Immigration and Justice. "There has to be a comprehensive effort and you have to have point people who are specifically tasked with building trust with the community."

In July of this year, Louisiana's Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman instituted a new policy directing the department to decline all "voluntary detention" orders (also known as 48-hour holds) from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) unless the person in question is being held on one of several serious offenses including aggravated rape, armed robbery and first or second-degree murder.

The policy also stipulates that ICE must contact a suspect's attorney prior to interviewing him or her, and "provide a reasonable opportunity for counsel to be present during the interview."

Jacinta Gonzalez, the lead organizer for the local Congress of Day Laborers in New Orleans, worked with the sheriff's department as it was creating this new directive and says that the immigrant community is thrilled with the change - and hoping the New Orleans Police Department will follow suit.

"Laws like the 'Trust Act' in California and the sheriff's new policy go a long way toward ensuring that people feel they can trust law enforcement," says Gonzalez.

  • Julia Dahl

    Julia Dahl writes about crime and justice for CBSNews.com