Home > Uncategorized > The Dilemma of the Undocumented Domestic Violence Survivor – posted 7/23/2017 and published in the Concord Monitor on 7/30/2017

The Dilemma of the Undocumented Domestic Violence Survivor – posted 7/23/2017 and published in the Concord Monitor on 7/30/2017

Since Donald Trump became president, one focus of his administration has been a crackdown on undocumented immigrants. As has been widely reported, the crackdown goes much farther than deporting violent criminals, gang members and drug dealers.

Any undocumented immigrant, regardless of circumstance, can get deported.

This shotgun approach has provoked widespread fear of deportation in immigrant communities in the United States. In that community, no group has been more adversely affected than domestic violence survivors.

Like other undocumented people, domestic violence survivors are afraid to come forward and draw any attention to themselves. They legitimately fear they will be deported if they show up on any radar screen so they decide to live with the abuse. Considering the actions of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) this year, the fear is understandable.

In February, there was a domestic violence case in El Paso, Texas, that drew national attention. A woman known by the initials IEG sought a protective order alleging she was a victim of domestic violence. IEG had filed three police reports in the preceding year alleging that she had been punched, kicked and chased with a knife. The Family Court granted IEG a protective order based on the domestic violence.

On the way out of the courtroom, six federal immigration agents arrested IEG for her immigration violations. The El Paso County Attorney, Jo Anne Bernal, whose office represents domestic abuse victims when they seek court orders against their abusers, said:

“We suspect it’s the (alleged) abuser who tipped off ICE about the woman.”

Bernal said that IEG’s offense appeared to be re-entering the country illegally after being deported.

Judge Yahara Lisa Gutierrez, who oversees the court that issued IEG’s protective order, stated that ICE agents should avoid effectively assisting domestic abusers by acting on their tips against their partners. It creates a collaboration relationship between the government and the abuser.

Because the story was widely reported, it had a seismic impact in immigrant communities across the country. It drove victims further into hiding. Now many victims are even afraid to call 911.

IEG’s case is not isolated. In Denver earlier this year, four domestic violence victims did not go forward on their cases because the victims refused to cooperate with law enforcement. A video had surfaced showing ICE agents poised to make arrests at a Denver courthouse. The victims were afraid of drawing the attention of ICE and then subjecting themselves to deportation.

Cases like IEG’s can fan the flames of fear so that victims and potential witnesses are more reticent to talk to the police or cooperate in criminal cases. Even under the best circumstances, domestic violence victims are often afraid to seek restraining orders because the perpetrators of their abuse threaten retaliation. Add the fear of deportation into the mix and you have a recipe for continuation of domestic violence.

It is quite common for abusers to use a victim’s undocumented status to control her. The abuser typically threatens to tell ICE and turn the undocumented partner in if she tries to escape the relationship.

The abuse can take many forms besides threatening to report her to the authorities to get her deported. The abuser will tell the victim no one can help her and that as an undocumented person, she is a nobody in America. He will isolate her from friends and family. He will not allow her to learn English. He will threaten to report her if she works under the table. He will destroy her important papers. He will call her a prostitute and a mail order bride. Belittling and emotional abuse are universal abuser tactics designed to wear down and immobilize the victim.

It is no wonder many women feel trapped. Lack of financial resources and language barriers play a role. The fear of having children taken away in the context of deportation also acts as a major disincentive from escape.

Unfortunately, there is more than anecdotal evidence that the Trump crackdown is moving domestic violence victims further into the shadows. In May, a coalition of national organizations focused on domestic violence and sexual assault surveyed 700 advocates and attorneys from 46 states and the District of Columbia about the issues confronting immigrant survivors seeking services.

78% of respondents said that survivors expressed concerns about contacting police due to fears it would open them up to deportation. 75% said that survivors had expressed concern about going to court for a matter related to their abuser. 43% of respondents said that the survivors they have worked with have dropped criminal or civil cases related to their abuse because they are fearful of potentially opening themselves up to deportation.

In light of the immigration crackdown, there is likely confusion about what protections remain in place for domestic violence victims. Under the Violence Against Women Act, immigrant victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking can qualify for special protection. They can possibly get immigration protection through a U visa, which is reserved for victims of abuse. To obtain a U visa, a law enforcement official must certify that the U visa applicant has been helpful to an investigation or prosecution of criminal activity. I would be surprised if the immigration crackdown has not had a chilling effect on the number of victims willing to seek a U visa.

One disturbing thing that happened in May: the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s new Victim Information and Notification Exchange – an online database created to track when criminals are released from or into ICE custody – publicly listed the names and detainment location of victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking who have applied to stay legally in the United States on special protective visas. The Department of Homeland Security is legally prohibited from releasing identifying information about immigrants seeking these visas.

It took a couple months for this error to be corrected so that protected names were removed from the database. While the error was almost certainly inadvertent, it could not have reassured victims.

While I know there are many who may not care what happens to undocumented domestic violence victims, I believe that view is short-sighted. Federal law has long recognized our communities are more secure if crime victims can come forward. Survivors of domestic violence should not face dire consequences for contacting law enforcement.

It is dangerous to create a strata of subterranean crime victims who are without any legal protection.

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