Afraid. Alone. Anxious.
That’s the current mood among many undocumented victims of domestic violence across the country who fear they’ll unwittingly become targets for deportation if they reach out for help, according to advocates interviewed by The Huffington Post.
Under President Donald Trump’s new immigration policies, federal immigration agents are free to detain and deport anyone who is in the country without papers. That’s a stark departure from the policies of the Obama administration, which directed agents to prioritize certain categories of people, namely those who had been convicted of serious crimes.
Now, undocumented domestic violence victims may feel they face a difficult choice: Ask for help and risk “outing” themselves to authorities, or suffer the abuse in silence.
Advocates say this is driving undocumented victims further into isolation as they begin to perceive their traditional routes to safety, such as reporting abuse to police and pursuing criminal charges, as dangerous.
“It has this devastating, chilling effect,” said Kathy Moore, executive director of the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence.
She pointed to a recent case in El Paso, Texas, in which an undocumented woman was detained after going to court to seek a domestic violence protective order against her boyfriend ― a man she alleged had punched, kicked, strangled and recently thrown a knife at her. Unbeknownst to her, a federal immigration agent was also sitting inside the courtroom. As she left, she was arrested.
News of that incident spread like wildfire, Moore said. “There’s this heightened sense of fear, and it impacts the whole community,” she said.
Others who witness domestic violence, such as neighbors and coworkers, may also be more reticent to talk to police or cooperate in criminal cases if they are undocumented, making it more difficult to hold abusers accountable, Moore cautioned.
This sends a message to every undocumented abuse victim that their abusers’ threats can be brought to life. Ginger Butcher, Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence
It’s common for abusers to use a victim’s undocumented status to control them, said Ginger Butcher, director of victim advocacy services at the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence. They may threaten to turn their undocumented partner in if they try to leave the relationship, and tell them that no one can help them, she said.
“This sends a message to every undocumented abuse victim that their abusers’ threats can be brought to life,” Butcher said. “The help that was available for them is no longer a safe space.”
Her organization runs a hotline that victims in Arizona can call with legal questions. The group is now working out what to tell undocumented victims who are seeking advice.
“It will change as the situation changes,” Butcher said. “We are continually updating our safety planning methods.”
Rachel Goldsmith, an administrator at Safe Horizon, New York City’s largest domestic violence shelter provider, said her organization has heard from many clients who are terrified of being deported and being separated from their children.
“I worry that people are not going to reach out who need our support,” she said. “There is very little certainty right now. People don’t know what to expect and what will come out tomorrow.”
Victims still have rights, Goldsmith said, despite the political climate. She noted that there are two legal immigration remedies available for undocumented victims.
Under the Violence Against Women Act, domestic violence victims who are abused by a citizen or a permanent resident can apply for a green card if they meet certain requirements. Undocumented victims can also apply for a U visa if they are a victim of a crime and are willing to work with law enforcement during an investigation.
She encouraged those in need to reach out to a shelter, domestic violence advocate or lawyer in their community to learn about their rights.
“We are here for you, and despite whatever the abusive partner might be saying, we can help you,” she said.
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Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline .