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Domestic Abuse Fears Grow in Immigrant Communities

| October 28, 2011

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Donna Ferrato's Living with the Enemy is a classic photo documentary of domestic abuse

Alabama has passed the most extreme of the new state immigration laws copying Arizona's statute. Laura Tillman explores how they threaten victims of domestic violence.

As Domestic Violence Awareness Month draws to a close, Alabama’s new immigration law has abuse survivors and their advocates holding their breath. The law is the latest challenge to those trapped in abusive relationships who have concerns about either their own immigration status, that of their abuser or their children.

Alabama joins a growing list of states that have considered putting immigration enforcement into the hands of local police, though Alabama’s law has gone the furthest. The concept of locally enforcing federal immigration laws has long been thought risky, both because immigration enforcement requires complex training and because enforcing immigration law creates rifts between local police and immigrant communities, thereby making it harder for police to be effective in enforcing other laws—among them domestic violence protections.

“We need to publicize the unintended consequences these laws have,” said Tanya Broder, senior attorney at the National Immigration Law Center. “They can look good in the short term, but the situation is much more complicated than that. Our law enforcement priorities are undermined when we try to locally take charge of an issue better handled on the federal level.”

The danger to domestic violence victims lies in the confusion surrounding these immigration laws as well as in their literal application.

The aftermath of Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070 illustrates the unpredictability of state immigration laws. Even though the core sections of Arizona’s immigration law were blocked, domestic violence programs still reported a decrease in calls for help, according to Lindsay Simmons, advocacy coordinator at the Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

“The one culturally specific program for Latina victims in the Phoenix area has had about 15 empty shelter beds for a time, which is highly unusual,” Simmons wrote by email. “These laws… served to generate a culture of fear within minority communities.”

Now, advocates in Alabama are waiting to see what the impact of House Bill 56 will have on their comparatively small immigrant population.

“As the bill was originally written, it would have criminalized domestic violence services,” said Carol Gundlach, the executive director of the Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Some of the extreme provisions—such as requiring school officials to ask students about their immigration status, and the section that made it criminal to harbor, transport or conceal an undocumented immigrant—have been blocked. But much of the law remains intact.

One provision makes it a felony for an unauthorized immigrant to enter into a business transaction with the state of Alabama. Another makes certain contracts invalid between undocumented immigrants and other people, such as rental agreements. That means a domestic abuse victim escaping her abuser could be limited in her ability to be independent.

“The law hasn’t been fully implemented or interpreted by Alabama officials, which leaves us without clear answers regarding the risks that immigrants families may be subject to,” Broder said. Broder and Gundlach also stress that not only domestic violence victims who are undocumented will be affected.

“If the perpetrator is undocumented, many people would assume the victim wants them deported, but that’s often not true,” Gundlach said. “They want him to stop being violent, they don’t want to lose child support or see him deported and have the children go into the child welfare system. That’s a pretty strong deterrent to calling law enforcement.”

Anyone who lives with undocumented immigrants may also be hesitant to call police, even if he or she is a U.S. citizen. Someone who is in the application process for legal status might also be concerned about creating problems for their application by calling police. The list of possible manifestations goes on and on.

“It’s so complicated,” Broder said. “The kinds of decisions they have to make—what’s safe for them to do and when it’s safe for them to do it—it’s a delicate balance. We have worked with many police officers who know the importance of working with these communities to build trust, to work with immigrant communities in particular and domestic violence survivors in general. They can’t do that if people are afraid to call on them. But the idea of calling the police to help when the police could put you in detention, your children or your partner, those are impossible decisions."

There are special visas available for domestic abuse survivors. The Violence Against Women Act includes provisions to help women married to a green card holding spouse to get on a path to lawful permanent residence if they are escaping an abusive relationship. The U visa also helps crime victims, including domestic violence victims, to get temporary legal status, work eligibility and a pathway to lawful permanent residence.

“Domestic violence survivors should know that there’s a network of people who are there to help and support them,” Broder said. “They are not alone.”

Each year, U.S. women experience 4.8 million intimate partner-related physical assaults and rapes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Twenty-five percent of U.S. women will report being physically assaulted or raped by an intimate partner in their lifetime. The National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). The Southern Poverty Law Center has also created a hotline, which can be reached at 1-800-982-1620, to educate Alabama residents on their rights.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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